Christmas Past

25 12 2019

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This Christmas will be my 60th. I don’t remember the first 4. The fifth Christmas brought me my first doll, Susan, and the year after that, Peewee, a 2-inch doll teetering at the top of my stocking.   Christmas 14 launched my painting career with my first set of oil paints. My magical 22nd Christmas found Brad and me in Dorset, idealistic newlyweds on snowshoes, dragging home the perfect tree by the light of the full moon.

But the one I remember the most vividly was my 12th Christmas.   My family and I were on a year long camping trip in a VW minivan through Europe and the Middle East. There was no room for Christmas gifts, we all agreed.   Besides, we were leaving the island of Crete in the morning to catch the Phaistos ferry to the mainland of Greece. The van was packed up. I crawled into my sleeping bag Christmas Eve, hoping that I would be brave the following morning.

A sturdy knock woke us up. It was the long haired hippie, Patrick, the American Jewish New Yorker whom we had picked up hitchhiking a few times around the western end of the island and had probably fed, too. The son of a successful textiles merchant, Patrick had fled the wealth of New York and found whatever it was that he was seeking in the wild hills of Crete where he took a humble job as a shepherd. That Christmas, he came to say goodbye and to bring Christmas gifts for all: for me, a used leather pouch that he’d picked up in his travels in Morocco. (I wore it on my belt for years.). His gestures touched us to the core. When he finished handing out his gifts, my mother slipped a parcel onto my lap.   She had bought me a Cretan doll for my doll collection. My sisters and I then pulled out the lace doily we had secretly purchased for our mother.

A second knock interrupted us. It was our toothless neighbour,Maria who lived with her goats in a small, dark room with a dirt floor and only a pan of embers to warm her octogenarian body that was always cold. Years ago, she had lost her husband and all her sons in the war. She was bringing us a live rabbit for our Christmas dinner. My parents stammered around, struggling to figure out how to return the rabbit without insulting her.

I was expecting nothing that Christmas, but instead, I learned lessons that I have never forgotten: Maria was extravagantly generous, even in her poverty: Patrick tried hard to make our religious celebration special for us, even when it wasn’t his own. These are gifts that will never lose their lustre.