Long after my father died, my mother remained close with his sister, Eunice, a retired librarian. The friendship between these two widows was made all the more remarkable by their contrasting personalities — a distinction bookmarked on Christmas, when even mild family differences tend to grow sharper.
People were oxygen for my mother, whose yuletide philosophy might best be described as the more, the merrier. Aunt Eunice was cheerful and outgoing, but she liked company in small doses. On the Christmases that she spent with us, Eunice would politely take her leave after lunch and coffee, retreating to the quiet of the empty house that was waiting for her return. She once suggested that the best part of the holidays was the company she kept with herself by a roaring fireplace.
My mother sighed at that notion, wondering how any celebration could be properly observed alone. For her, a Christmas crowd was the quorum that each Dec. 25 required.
Both women are gone now, but their friendly argument about the virtues of society and solitude resurfaces for me each December, as I think through my own attitudes about what Christmas should be. Glancing at my desk calendar for the month, I see people penciled in nearly every block, a bright strand of humanity hung like the lights of the season in a warm display of possibility. The coming days promise parties, dinners, a concert, the usual klatches of siblings and in-laws. Each scribbled line on my holiday itinerary records a connection to community, some sum of the human condition far larger, richer and more complicated than the single face who greets me in the mirror each morning. It’s not coincidental that the first Christmas unfolded in a teeming Bethlehem, a backdrop with a cast of thousands.
But this is also the point in the year when the Christmas calendar begins to look, rather oddly, like a presidential campaign — a whirlwind of chatter and camaraderie, endured at times with a forced smile and a stiff upper lip.
At some juncture in this festival of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men, while I’m cornered in a conversation by the eggnog and cheese dip, my mind will wander to the image of an elderly woman by a flickering hearth — a ghost of Christmas past enjoying an afternoon unfettered by small talk, mandatory good cheer and the umpteenth rendition of “Jingle Bells.” I call these interludes of the season my Eunice moments, the reminder of a relative who knew that there’s also something to be said for Christmas quiet, the space to reflect on what the holiday truly means.
Where the right balance lies between being a part of Christmas and being apart from it, I can’t really say. In the meantime, I’m due at the neighbors’ for 7.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.