Raised in the 50’s when the Iron Curtain was an imaginary and exaggerated fear, our home had its own iron curtain on Christmas Eve. Although only made of cotton, it still kept from us from one place to another. The “another,” in this case, was the decorated Christmas tree in our living room.
To this day, I have never decorated a Christmas tree. I’ve always had “people” to do it for me. “People” in those days were my older brother and two sisters. Along with my parents, it was their job to prepare the tree while my younger sister and I were forced into Russia, aka. grandmother’s house. The forever few hours tortured us wondering what would be under the Christmas tree and if it would shine and glimmer the way it did last year.
The telephone call from the free world finally comes to Russia and we are permitted to return to our homeland. Darkness and cold descends upon Manitowoc, Wisconsin. My grandmother has my sister and I carry her wicker laundry basket full of gifts to the waiting car. The drive home finally arrives. (About ten minutes in real time but to a child, an infinity.)
Now the real ritual begins. Ritual, by the way, is the repetition of something to ingrain within you something important. It is different than a rite or a ceremony. Ours was a ritual. Repeated in real time but recreated in our minds ever since. We need to change into our pajamas but in order to do that we need to get upstairs which is through the living room now blocked by the cotton iron curtain. We promise to close our eyes while running through the living room upstairs. What trust we placed in young people? (I only peeked once and have done self imposed penance ever since.) After changing, we need to return once more through this sacred and secretly decorated room. How much time has passed? Way too much for a a youngster.
The ritual has only begun. (If you thought that Advent’s four weeks was over, you haven’t been to our home on Christmas Eve.) We kneel down (right next to the iron curtain) to say the rosary. All five decades. All said supremely solemn as though to punish two young people even more. The third decade brings the relief of something different. My younger sister gets to place the child Jesus in the manger crib. It was the gift of the youngest to do this. (Oh, the perils of being the middle child!)
The rosary is finally completed and none too soon. With proud fanfare on all their faces, the iron cotton curtain is removed and the majestic Christmas tree is revealed. Smiles abound. Another Christmas ritual has been methodically and religiously carried out. Not a detail missed. Not a feeling ignored. The mounting momentum, the racing child’s pulse, the anticipation of another Christmas surprise that was really no different from the previous year is successfully carried out.
The curtain separating us from wonder, hope and joy has been removed and is now ours to savor and enjoy. Forever. Or at least, for another year.