The father of my friend Laura died last Christmas Eve, and for all the grief it brought her family, there was a certain poetry in her father's timing. He was of Icelandic heritage and so Christmas Eve, in accordance with Icelandic custom, had always been the high point of the Christmas holidays for him and his wife and children.
Every year they gathered for a Christmas Eve dinner, then adjourned to the tree to open presents. Finally, stomachs full and gifts explored, they braved the cold night for the collective trip to church.
Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales," a ritual he conducted with headphones to spare his wife, who hated it.
He died in the afternoon of last Christmas Eve and so, to honor their father on his favorite night, Laura and her brothersthat evening traded presents as they had year after year when they and their father were young. They weren't trying to pretend he was alive, simply to celebrate the fact that he had been.
Laura carries vivid memories of all those Christmases past into this year's Christmas, the first, as she puts it, in which her father is "truly absent." Last year, in the freshness of mourning, her family could simulate Christmas as it once was, but this year she and her mother planned on a quiet Christmas Eve, just the two of them, without the usual throng of relatives and the traditional meat pie.
"Somehow the usual ceremony seems to me to be too unbearably diminished to continue," Laura said. "It's as if our rituals have also died, or are at least in hibernation."
Few of us bring such an acute loss into this day whose official theme is joy, but for many of us, Christmas comes full of holes. A parent who died. A sibling who moved far away. A family member estranged from the family. Someone, it seems, is always missing, someone with whom we once shared Christmas and without whom Christmas seems a shade paler than before.
For years, it has been true in my family. No matter how big or festive the assembly, some ghost is always hovering near the turkey and the tree.
This year, three of my brothers and I, along with my mother, are assembling in Eugene, Ore., along with an assortment of relatives.
It's a cast that could fill a Cecil B. DeMille film, a film packed with subplots that make "The Young and the Restless" seem restful and still it feels not quite whole. The absences are as palpable as rain.
I have a brother in Moscow who can't afford to cross an ocean and two continents with his wife and baby. I have a brother in Colorado who is spending the holiday with his wife's family. I have a sister in Atlanta who for a variety of reasons can't make it and another in New York who for a variety of reasons doesn't want to. Our father died 11 Christmases ago.
But even as I lament that none of them will be with us, I know that all of them will. We'll do what families do, plugging the holes in Christmas present with memories of Christmases come and gone, telling stories to conjure up the ghosts.
We'll remember Melanie bustling around the kitchen with a surgeon's intensity and energy, elbowing intruders out of her path, and Chris hiding in his room reading Russian poetry. Bill's ghost will be there making sardonic jokes and Regina's will be there too, talking about her latest boyfriend.
And Dad, of course, will appear, standing in front of his handcrafted Nativity set, a drink in one hand, his other hand arranging and rearranging the three wise men, as if by achieving a perfect rendition of the first Christmas right there in our family room he could at last make his dream of the ideal Christmas come true.
The spirits of the absent guests always remind me that Christmas is never just one Christmas. It is the sum of all the Christmases you've known and all the people who have inhabited them.
Perhaps more than any other day, Christmas is the measure of passing time, the collective clock by which we count out our lives. It's a mutating event anchored in unchanging rituals. New characters join any family's cast--new spouses, babies, lovers--but the old cast is still clattering around in the wings.
In my family, we usually take a moment at a Christmas meal to raise a glass and say, "To those who can't be with us," and in that moment they are.