Party of 10

Ritual comes home, again

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I’m making a list. Checking it twice.

No, make that 367 times, mostly at 3 a.m. I’m not interested in naughty and nice. Let someone else worry about that. Me, I’m counting sheets and towels and frozen lasagnas. I’m unearthing board games and picture books from basement cupboards and doing the math on how many people will fit comfortably around the dining room table, including high chairs.

We’ll be 10 in residence this holiday season, with four of the assembled company age six and under. According to my calculations, nearly half of our guests believe in Santa Claus. They also believe in Hot Wheels, princesses, Play-Doh, and high-octane fun, measured out in 12-hour segments. Above all, they believe in grandparents with inexhaustible energy and boundless patience and secret caches of M&Ms. We aim to please.

This is the chapter I used to dream about in my quiet and tidy empty nest. Once my own children’s childhoods were history, I struggled to embrace the All Adult Christmas. No more pre-dawn reveilles. No more bicycle assembly at midnight. Just a lot of mellow grown-ups sleeping late and then exchanging sweaters and books and drinking lattes while Bing Crosby crooned “Adeste Fideles” in the background. Sounds nice, right?

Well, sort of. To be honest, it was a bit low-key for my tastes. I missed the giddy excitement of small children in a house at Christmas, the inspection of chimneys and rooftops, the speculation about favorite reindeer snacks. I missed the heady rush of Christmas morning, that breathless moment when the father of the house leaves the family waiting at the top of the stairs and goes down in the dark to see if Santa has been there. I missed the cry of “he came,” and the stampede to the presents.

In my own childhood, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning ran on ritual as inviolable as sacred writ. We piled into my grandmother’s tiny, fragrant house, my sister and brothers and cousins three and four to a bed. Downstairs in the parlor, the only sign of the season was a crèche on the mantel. One of the aunts would tell us stories until our eyes were heavy, then leave us with the warning not to stir until the church bells rang.

We always woke before dawn, and huddled under quilts waiting for the peal of bells from Trinity steeple across the way. Then it was out to the landing to wait for my father’s report from downstairs. The sight of the blue and silver tree towering over piles of gifts seemed to define Christmas for me, that and the scent of pine boughs and frying bacon and coffee.

When my sons were little, we added our own traditions to the ancient script. On Christmas Eves in our New York City apartment, we would leave the children tucked in bed under the watchful eye of a visiting aunt and climb to the roof of our building. There, in the frosty night, we would jingle bells and stamp imaginary hooves and shout “ho, ho, ho” to prove that chimney or not, Santa Claus was on his way.

Now, by some galloping trick of time, I am the grandmother. The boys who listened to reindeer on a Manhattan roof are fathers now, and it is their children who will pile into the four-posters and wait for dawn.

I study my list and unpack the crèche and hang the wreaths and the garlands. I fill the freezer with sausage balls and cookie dough. I count the days until the house fills up with joyful noise. Again Christmas; abiding point of return, wrote Elizabeth Bowen. All that is dear, that is lasting, renews its hold on us; we are home again.

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