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Christmas 2022: The festival isn’t a day, it’s a frame of mind

Where did the magic of childhood Christmases disappear? The spirit of the festival, I realise, comes from recreating the precious parts of our childhood that made it special

The beauty of childhood Christmas was that even though the same food was served every year, it held the same fascination. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
The beauty of childhood Christmas was that even though the same food was served every year, it held the same fascination. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

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The Christmases of my childhood were magical—just like the ones you see in the movies. I still remember how the snow fell in my small hometown in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. Lying back, zipped into a garish pink snowsuit, on a soft bed of snow, I would watch intricate snowflakes dance and swirl their way to the ground, often getting stuck in my eyelashes, blurring my vision. My favourite pastime was picking one delightfully graceful snowflake and tracking its descent to earth. If I was lucky, I could catch a single flake whole in my mouth. The cold satisfaction was worth the wait.

My backyard was the stuff of mythical childhood memories. Scattered through were trees large enough for a treehouse, complete with a trap door and a rope ladder you could scamper up to hide from the adults, hills that you could roll down, and a driveway to play hockey with friends. But, most importantly, the end of the yard met the forest, littered with pine trees. Each year, we would choose one of the aged, dry ones to be our Christmas tree until my mother decided it was a looming fire hazard and it was more prudent to invest in a plastic one. And so, these trees gained another purpose—they made the most amazing tent after a large dump of snow.

After a heavy fall, their downward-sloping branches would be buried under snowbanks and I could crawl and hide under its branches. Inside, the world was peaceful, quiet and pristine, and my hot breath would turn into plumes of white clouds, prickling my face as I sat and listened. In the faint distance, I could hear my mother playing the one a cappella Christmas album we owned on an endless loop. From my pocket, I would take my stolen chocolates from the iconic purple Quality Street tin, savouring each one slowly and praying my mother wouldn’t find out.

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When I think of Christmas, I return to this idyllic scene. I get wistful and nostalgic, thinking about how the world would fall quiet for a moment, before being punctuated with the shrieks of our neighbourhood kids as we clamoured outside while our mothers yelled “please don’t forget your hat” from the safety of the kitchen. When we would finally come in for dinner, exhausted, pink-cheeked, with numb toes, warm blasts of heat from the fireplace and delicious, rich smells from the oven would envelop us. The beauty of childhood Christmas was that even though the same food was served every year, it held the same fascination for us: apple pies, baked eggs, bacon, and strange stuffing squares that tasted amazing but probably were drawn from a recipe my mother pulled out of a 1980s Reader’s Digest magazine. All experiences of Christmas have merged into one common, fuzzy memory which feels like a dream.

Soon after, I turned from a rosy-cheeked kid into a moody teenager who couldn’t bear the thought of a garish pink snowsuit. I was suddenly too cool to sit and open presents with my family. I dreamt of moving out of my house, away from sibling rivalries and the lingering tension of school exams. I longed for the days I could escape from my small rural town and see the lights hanging over the bustling city streets or Christmas markets, where one could drink hot apple cider while skating with friends. I couldn’t wait to create new traditions with strangers in my new life and leave the old behind.

The author's son’s joy is her spirit of Christmas
The author's son’s joy is her spirit of Christmas

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As an adult, I moved to London and wandered the magical light trimmed streets and drank hot apple cider by the Thames. I skated in the parks, and yet, the spirit of Christmas slowly faded from my heart. Work started to swallow me with the end-of-year deadlines, leaving me to explain to my disappointed family that I couldn’t afford to come home. Soon, the term “Christmas spirit” was reduced to hanging out in dark, moody pubs, drinking Bucks Fizz with a few hapless companions singing Christmas carols. It was a quantum leap from the Christmas spirit I had experienced when younger. Something was missing and I needed help to figure out what it was.

It took me a few years. But when I met my husband and moved to the humid, palm tree-lined streets of Chennai, India, of all places, I found out what it needed: family and tradition. During the first few years of our marriage, I used my tried-and-failed techniques of creating Christmas in our house. I played the same carols; I decorated the tree, and we even hosted parties. I couldn’t get that feeling I once had, though, and I began to think that maybe Christmas was just for kids. However, something magical happened when I gave birth to my son just a few months before Christmas—I became obsessed with his first Christmas. Suddenly, all I could think about was decorating the tree, finding the perfect home-made ornament to nestle into the branches with his name on it, and finding the right music to play and food to eat.

When he was a little older, I would wrap presents and place them under the tree with such excitement you would think they were for me. A friend of ours started hosting “Kiddie Christmas” at their house, inviting “Santa Claus” (a good-natured friend who was promised cake as payment) to visit the kids, something my son looks forward to every year.

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As we prepared for Christmas this year, I saw how these little traditions brought the magic back to Christmas. As we put up our Christmas tree this year, my son carefully chose each ornament, climbed to the top of a large stool, and placed it on the tree. When we finished, he would disappear for a few minutes and return with his pillow and teddy bear, curling up under the tree to watch the blinking lights.

Suddenly, I realised where the magic had gone. I had assumed the spirit of Christmas showed up in December for us to enjoy; instead, it came from recreating the precious parts of our childhood that made Christmas special. It was a verb, not an adjective—an action, not a state of being. The beauty of recreating Christmas traditions wasn’t to be unique or exciting but to revisit the time when things were simpler, pristine, unmarred by busy lives.

My son’s joy is my spirit of Christmas. My role now is to recreate magical memories that my son can use as a bookmark to return to when he has a family of his own.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based women’s weight loss coach.

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