A common, if not universal complaint at Christmastime is that “something is missing.” No matter how wonderful the current Christmas season turns out to be, we almost always have a sense of some lack.
Most often, the sense is that Christmases aren’t what they used to be.
For me, this is part of the celebration. Just as one must have darkness to appreciate light, a balance must be struck. For me, a Christmas that’s all joy and no bittersweet is hardly a Christmas at all. I came to terms with feeling this lack or diminishment long ago, and incorporated it into my observance of the season.
Nevertheless, I recently realized one aspect of Christmas Past that has disappeared for me. An institution of Christmas, of particular importance to me personally, passed out of my life long ago, and is not likely to return.
I’m speaking, of course, of ladies’ magazines: Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook and the like.
Mom either subscribed to some of these, or bought them. Either way, they would appear on the coffee table around Christmas time. Next to the holiday editions of the Sears and Penny’s catalog, I anticipated these publications most eagerly each year.
The holiday issues almost always included a fantastic Victorian style gingerbread mansion on the cover, photographed in a perfect setting of colors and design to invoke the magic of a child’s Christmas. Inside would be more photographs that could be pored over with delight for hours at a time. How I loved small things as a child! I would shrink myself down in my imagination, and pass through the gingerbread door, and take up residence inside, living comfortably until I very literally ate myself out of house and home!
These magazines also offered photo spreads of incredible homes lavishly decorated for Christmas. I still appreciate these spreads as an adult, but back then they were far more magical, because I was a child, living with my parents. My adult home lay in my future, a totally unknown quantity. That meant that any of the features I looked at could be photographed in a house I might one day own. Or, I could take the best features of each year’s offerings, and build them together into one home.
The possibilities were as limitless as a child’s imagination. Lying on my stomach on the warm carpet before the lit Christmas tree, poring quietly over these photographs, I lived many happy lifetimes in the space of a drowsy afternoon.
As I write this, I glance around our tiny cabin, with its humble yet beautiful Christmas decorations. It compares favorably to some of those magazine spreads that I remember, many of which featured mountain cabins or 18th century homes. I wonder how a magazine spread on this home at Christmastime would have fired my young imagination? What would that child have thought if someone, looking over his shoulder, had told him, “This is your future home. One day, your Christmases will be spent in this small cabin, on the edge of the Alaskan coast”? I know it would have delighted me. However, even that assurance would mean that all the other many possibilities for my future were closed; such a revelation would necessarily diminish the pleasant speculation of leafing through the magazine features.
Remembering this pleasurable holiday activity, it’s hard to argue that magic doesn’t exist in the world. It exists within us, especially as children, especially at Christmastime.