‘Twas the morning of the night before Christmas
and all through the house
lots of geckos were stirring
instead of a mouse.
And so we have reached our first Christmas in Panama . . . and our 25th Christmas since getting married many years, continents, countries, states, and homes ago. But this year is different for us not only because we celebrate it in Panama for the first time, but also because this is our first Christmas since getting married when we have no other family celebrating with us.
Even before the girls were born, we spent Christmas with either Brian’s or Audrey’s family, and sometimes with elements of both. Since our household grew with the additions of Margaret and Charlotte, Christmas always meant either hosting extended family or traveling to celebrate Christmas with them. When we lived in Virginia, except when traveling to the Pacific Northwest to be with Brian’s family (which meant three branches of his mother’s family tree celebrating together with as many as two dozen people sharing Norwegian meatballs, lefse, and julekake, and four generations of memories), we joined Audrey’s family at her grandmother’s big house outside Washington, D.C., or hosted fancy, wine-paired, multi-course dinners for them at our house, complete with printed menus tied with ribbon at each place setting. Our girls grew up understanding time with family as an integral part of celebrating Christmas.
Before moving abroad, Brian promised his mother that he would return each December so they could celebrate Christmas together and check off as many boxes as possible on the list of family holiday traditions like making Norwegian cookies and joining the annual sing-a-long of Handel’s “Messiah” in Seattle each December 26. (Indeed, Christmas 2016 was especially memorable for bringing Margaret and Charlotte to their first Messiah Sing-a-Long after they had grown up hearing about it, introducing an intergenerational family tradition that stretches back at least to Brian’s great-grandfather and grandmother, who respectively conducted the Messiah and sang in it at their small-town Minnesota church. His great-grandfather’s conducting baton and his grandmother’s Messiah music score are among Brian’s most prized sentimental possessions.) Each year he kept his promise. Some years Audrey and Charlotte also flew from Morocco; other years they enjoyed mother-daughter holiday jaunts in Europe while Brian headed to the PNW, taking them to the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
This year, like people across the continents, we hoped to spend the holidays with family, perhaps even making Panama a meet-up destination for as many of the current four generations (from Brian’s mother to our new grandson) as could join us for a Rainforest Christmas. Instead, like those across the continents abiding by pandemic best practices to keep loved ones safe, we awoke today to start our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations happy to be together, but missing all the family with whom we had hoped to exchange Christmas hugs, and one whom we can never hug again.
We also looked forward to celebrating our first Christmas after moving to a Catholic country. During our years in Morocco, we enjoyed trips to Spain where we often saw parades through the streets on Holy Days, with spectators crowding the sidewalks as waves of iconic statues and bands marched and played solemnly from churches onward through their town. We wondered how the New World Catholic traditions would compare to the Old World ones. But the last time either of us went to church was at the end of February when Brian attended Ash Wednesday Mass with two college friends in the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague. With Panama’s COVID-19 numbers rising sharply since the November national holidays, the country has stepped backward in its lockdown protocols: at least for the next two weeks women can go out Monday/Wednesday and men can go out Tuesday/Thursday, with no one able to go out Friday/Saturday/Sunday. We will have to wait at least another year to see what Panamanian Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Nonetheless, we have persevered to will ourselves into the Christmas spirit over the last few weeks. We found a box with an artificial tree in the attic space of our house, and assembled its branches in a spot where we pass it multiple times a day. Looking a bit ragged and thin, and without any decorations, it has served symbolically as a totem for our family this year: a bit off, not quite what we would prefer, and a bit worse for the wear of this year with empty spots from what and whom we have lost; but standing just the same, and with a quiet appreciation for all the blessings we have enjoyed. With the tree urging us further, we started playing Christmas music. Last week, Brian watched “Polar Express” by himself, thinking about when we took the girls to see it in the theater when they were four and six years old. And earlier this week together we watched “White Christmas” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – two more things we try to watch each year. Tonight we will cap our family Christmas movie tradition with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as George Bailey and Clarence the Angel remind us of life’s blessings – especially the people who know and love us – even in difficult times.
We also have gotten a little festive with food plans. Last weekend Brian cooked a ham, then Audrey made a batch of rolls with cast-off from her sourdough starter so that we could continue the ham feast for a couple days with ham sandwiches warmed so that melted swiss cheese oozed down the sides. Originally we had planned to roast a chicken for Wednesday’s dinner, then keep alive the Menard family tradition of Christmas Eve Pizza before roasting a turkey for Christmas Day with green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. But the chicken that Brian took out of the freezer on Sunday was still frozen yesterday, so we changed plans to roast it in Audrey’s Instant Pot tonight instead of making pizza. And if the chicken had not thawed by yesterday, that also meant the end of any hope for the much larger turkey being ready to roast tomorrow. So last night we pulled a couple duck breasts out of the freezer as a new Christmas dinner plan, with turkey coming . . . well, coming whenever it finally thaws so that we can roast it. Whenever that finally happens, we will have tons of turkey to feed the two of us with roast turkey, turkey sandwiches, turkey and wild rice soup, turkey tetrazzini, and whatever other turkey things we might make from even a small turkey roasted just for two people. As a final note on dinner tonight and tomorrow – less a note on food, and more a commentary on maintaining this year’s great flexibility all the way to the end – it looks like the chicken may have to wait one more day to thaw fully, so we will probably make one more menu adjustment to have it tomorrow and feast on Christmas Eve with pan-seared duck and a blackberry-pear sauce.
In an inspired moment, yesterday Audrey decided on a whim to decorate our homely tree with what she found available in the house. It has no presents beneath its fake branches; but, with two rolls of toilet paper and a mask she took off after going to her office at school, she transformed it perfectly to complete its status as a totem for this year and season.
In 1943, Bing Crosby’s original recording of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on Decca Records charted for 11 weeks. Since then its fit has grown from soldiers and sailors abroad in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II wishing they could come home for Christmas to encompass anyone far away from those they love. After graduating from college, any year that Brian could not celebrate Christmas with his mother, he has called her to sing the song. They both cry a little, say they love each other, and wish each other Merry Christmas. This Christmas, after a year dealing with a pandemic that has changed the world in so many ways, after losing his stepfather suddenly in September, and now unable to be together for the safety and health of everyone, they might share an extra tear or two when he sings to her, “I’ll be home for Christmas . . . if only in my dreams.”
Yet the heaviness this particular Christmas brings us remains laced with so many blessings that fill our lives, even in a year like this one. And so – like the Mel Torme song Nat King Cole first recorded in 1946 – we offer this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two, although it’s been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you.
On your mark, get set, here we go!