“Here’s to us and all missing members.”
So went the traditional toast for those gathered around the Temple household for numerous holidays. It started decades ago when the family was split by death and divorce, by commitments to other families, to work, to personal or geographic distancing.
Whoever happened to gather ‘round the family hearth would raise glasses of wine or Bloody Marys, shots of bourbon or bottles of beer, and pledge our good wishes to those present and those far from our table in Louisiana — for whatever reason.
Through the decades we learned to live with absences. And this year the family home is vacant. The “For Sale” sign is now in its 10th month of lonely sentry duty where our family no longer convenes.
I thought of the ritual toast a few days ago. The mailbox out on the street held three letters for Santa Claus. The red flag was up, telling the postal service there was mail to be delivered. Three 6-year-olds had scrawled “Santa Claus, North Pole” onto three envelopes with stamps neatly affixed in the proper corner.
Inside two were handwritten letters, nearly illegible partly because the strong-willed kindergartners spelled their wishes phonetically and minimally. When I asked one to read me his list, even he could not read his writing. He gave up, saying, “Santa Claus will know what it says.” The third petitioner had simply cut out pictures from a toy catalog and inserted them into his envelope.
None of these children is greedy or selfish. They just had wishes to put before Santa. Christmas, after all, above all, is about hope.
We hope for gifts and — more — the meaning behind them. We hope for the good times and comforts of family. We hope for peace and well-being. We hope for Jesus Christ to come to earth, to come into our lives; and if not the Lord of Christmas himself, then some sense of love and goodwill, selflessness and sharing. A light for the darkening world.
The season, so appropriately wedded to the New Year, is wrapped in the hopes of thresholds, redemptions and new beginnings.
So rich and strong is the lure of Christmas that even those of us young only at heart hope for a little magic this time of year. I never let go of such extravagant hope. I’m still waiting for Santa Claus.
I pause as I look at the mailbox and think of pulling the letters out. What will the mailman do with them? What would I do with them?
I couldn’t hide them away for fear they might be found. I couldn’t throw them away; it wouldn’t be mere letters getting trashed. I’d be discarding earnest, faithful dreams, however little, however futile. And if stashed at the office, their discovery years later would only bring that sweet, melting heartache parents are sentenced to feel because they love so much.
Sometimes you have to just stand back and let the prayers go drifting into space.
And sometimes — instead of hoping for magic, waiting for Santa or praying for love — your children’s letters going nowhere remind you that your generosity is the Christmas spirit somebody else’s list is calling for.
So here’s to us and all missing members, to those who so painfully miss the missing and to those whose Christmas spirit helps fulfill the hopes we’re all waiting for, praying for.
I wish I had a fun, final twist to these Christmas ruminations — a storybook ending in which the children’s letters brought an unexpected visit from some mysterious stranger. It hasn’t happened yet. If it does, I’ll let you know.
Meanwhile, there’ll be a plate of cookies and some milk by the fireplace and an empty chair at the table just in case there’s a knock at the door.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at email@example.com.