I've always loved Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales." To me it is the perfect, certainly the most poetic, expression of what Christmas is all about. I am what you might call a secularist, but I still welcome Christmas. I love the fragrant Christmas tree with its ornaments and lights, especially when some of the ornaments have tiny hand prints on them or are made out of popsicle sticks and cotton balls.
I've had many good Christmases, some better than others, rarely a bad one. But one Christmas stands out in my mind; I call it my one perfect Christmas, when I came the closest to recreating the spirit captured in Dylan Thomas's magical tale.
I was living in Canada with my then-husband and two young sons, four and 15 months. It was our first Christmas in the this land of snow and short winter days, where English and European traditions intermingled. I decided to embrace as many of them as I could and have the best, most beautiful Christmas ever. No, I didn't do anything remotely Martha Stewartish, no gilded turkey skeletons as a centerpiece or over-the-top light display. But this was the year I did make everything, beginning with fabric wreaths and homemade Swedish Christmas bread as gifts for family and friends, cookies by the dozen, and of course a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. I dug out an old-fashioned recipe for homemade mince meat that included suet and meat as well as the apples, raisins, and candied fruits we are all familiar with. There was a world of difference between my mincemeat pies and the ones with canned filling. In those days I was adept at making pie crust, and my pies were--well--divine. Hot homemade mince pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream can be enough to make you weep.
The piece de resistance, though, has to be the Christmas tree we tramped over hill and dale to find. The four of us joined another couple and their little girl to go in search of the perfect tree. The tree farm played Christmas carols over a loudspeaker, in case our mood wasn't already sufficiently festive. The snow lay deep on the ground, and my sons' cheeks were like bright red apples in the cold. The little one couldn't navigate the snow drifts, so I carried him, his arms and legs stuck out in his snowsuit like a doll's. I carried him, and we walked what seemed like miles, with him growing heavier and heavier with every step. Still, we pressed onward, sure the perfect tree lay just ahead. At last we found a tree that did indeed meet all our expectations. It was tall and thickly branched, and its shape was classic. My husband cut it down, and we began the walk back to our car. Let me tell you, the return journey was a lot longer than the journey out. The sun sank toward the horizon, shadows lengthened, and my son felt like an anvil in my arms. My husband had the worst of it though. Dragging the tree all that distance gave him a hernia, so although the tree only cost us $2.00, we paid for it in other ways later on.
We met more friends for a supper of homemade soup and bread, relieved to be back in the warmth of our friends' home where we could shed our wet boots and heavy coats. The house was warm, but the air was tangy with the cold we brought in with us. Little kids ran around in their sock feet, while the grown ups thawed out with hot mulled wine. We were so young, just at the beginning of our long adulthood, with so much that was unknown still ahead of us. We inhabited a space of relative innocence, when all a young family needed to be happy was healthy children, good friends, and the confidence that we would always be brave and strong and happy.
The next day we put up the tree. The house we lived in had 12-foot ceilings, but the tree had to be shortened to fit into the living room. It's hard to judge the size of a tree when it's standing outside, just as a new couch is always much bigger in your living room than it was in the store. Ah, but it was a gorgeous tree. When only the Christmas-tree lights were turned on, a fire crackled in the fireplace, and the darkness outside rubbed against the windows like the velvet noses of reindeer, we were complete. Now my sons are grown and I also have a daughter who has two sons of her own. None of them remembers that Christmas, alas, but in my memory it will always be my one perfect Christmas.