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Frontier Land

One of my most distinct Christmas memories is of being up in the choir loft at my church’s midnight mass, listening to my parents sing through the Christmas Eve service.  I can never hear “Silent Night” without remembering that feeling of being drowsily half-awake, sitting on the floor of the loft with my head on one of the steps as our church lifted their candles and sung with one voice against the dark.

Anne Rivers Siddons talks of a place called Christmas Country; that place in everyone’s heart that you immediately go when you think about Christmas.  For me, “Silent Night” is part of my Christmas Country, along with the piece of baby Jesus’ birthday cake consumed right after the midnight service (replete with the singing and blowing out of the candles) and the orange Danish we’d break fast with every Christmas morning.  In my Christmas Country, I’m maybe 7 years old and I feel the anticipation of going to bed after catching a glimpse of the bulging tree.  I smell the pine scent and feel the warmth of being snuggled down in the bed, giddy with anticipation.  I can taste my mother’s chocolate meringues and see the dining table groaning with the dinner spread.  My Christmas Country is in a house my family hasn’t lived in for several years, and is a time that will never be re-created.

As we’ve gotten ready for Christmas this year, Brian and I have been very aware that this is Madeleine’s first Christmas and we’re setting the stage for years to come.  And I’m not just speaking of making sure we don’t overload her with gifts so she doesn’t expect more every year – though that is a part of it.  But we’ve also had to discuss Santa traditions: does Santa wrap his gifts in unique paper, or leave them unwrapped to catch a child’s eye when he walks through the door?  How much is candy a part of Santa’s offering?  The past several years of marriage have been about a merging of our respective family’s traditions at each holiday; this year is about deliberately creating new ones.

I have no idea what Madeleine’s Christmas Country will end up looking like when she’s an adult.  I can only hope that it’s a warm and beautiful place to be, filled with good memories.  This Christmas Eve, for the first time that I can remember, I didn’t go to midnight mass; instead we went to the 5 p.m. “family service.”  It felt somehow wrong, like we were peaking too early, and I had a slight pang at the thought that Maddie wouldn’t experience (yet) the wonder of being out when the world is so sleepy and quiet.  As it was, her dinner time fell right in the middle of the service and she ended up taking a bottle for the last half.  She finished just before the last song started, which lo and behold was “Silent Night.”  With the lights dimmed and my daughter half asleep in my arms, candlelight flickering all around me as voices softly rose, I smiled to myself.  She may not have a Christmas Country yet, but she’s on the border.


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