Christmas has always been sacrosanct in our home. Preparations for the holiday begin a month or more in advance: hands covered in flour, tongues licking sticky batter off of fingertips. The home swells with light and warmth, miraculously doubling in size to accommodate the twenty-five extra inhabitants. The walls and ceiling glitter and laughter crackles as if from a record player, warm and smooth like honey, but with age and the knowledge of where we have been.
Presents have always been carefully kept and the process of wrapping each parcel has become as hallowed as saying the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday. Dean Martin and Bing Crosby sing of frosted windowpanes and treetops covered in snow while I sit on my floor, scrupulously folding and cutting, laying panels of shiny paper over white boxes so that it can be ripped off in seconds.
The church provides sacred tradition and ritual. The hymns sung in candlelight, the taste of communion wine especially sweet on this holiest of eves. We cry out, “Joy to the world,” and despite all our differences, it appears plausible within the confines of those sincere bricks. Eagerness paints the faces of the youngest worshipers, the sermon lost on them who only hope for stockings filled with chocolates and gift cards.
The meal, meticulously prepared and selflessly served, a panoply of my ancestors’ carefully considered recipes and my mother’s inexhaustible love. The saccharine sweetness of the ham mixed with melting butter over corn and the plumpness of filling developed and honed by women of my blood from years gone by. We bow our heads in gratitude and raise them again to partake in the feast, eating until we are full. Of food, yes, but also, of a little something more. Those 21 grams of soul, being, humanity that impregnates every pore, cell, membrane of your body with food and life and love and Christmas.
This year, the ingredients for the meal were purchased as they usually are: my mother and I knocking elbows with grey-haired Pennsylvania Dutchies and steering carts around the Ginos and Natalies ordering their seven fishes at the Farmer’s Market.
We had made an effort to be kind to those inside. A woman had waved us down in the parking lot in order to give us her parking space when she vacated it and her shopping cart, a valuable commodity in the holiday rush. Her generosity saved us time and effort and we both felt the need to pay it forward to those harried shoppers inside.
Our efforts to banter with the other patrons were met with equal parts humor and good will. We felt like the queens of the Law of Attraction, gliding through frantic and concerned shoppers and, through some wit and innocent flirtation, brought the joy back to us in turn.
Upon reaching the produce stand, we saw a little girl not more than three years old. She was holding the hand of her grandfather. In the other, she held a potato. It was small and red, but looked large and cumbersome in her tiny fist.
The grandfather bent over her with tenderness, watching as she used the fist that held the potato to point out different fruits and vegetables that interested her. He named them all — banana, orange, grapes, celery — using the voice that adults use with children that makes everything seem wonderful, even if the adult themselves can no longer see it.
It seemed to me that she did not need any help in believing that the potato she held was any less magical than the jolly man in the sleigh who would soon be checking her off of his nice list. The girl was ecstatic, skipping, pointing, and laughing. A flood of champagne to the senses, bubbly and sweet and full of sparkle. As we watched, she and her grandfather wound around the stand, pointing gleefully at the foods, all the while grasping the potato happily in her hand.
I knew she would teach me a lesson, this Little Potato Girl. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew her pure happiness and simplicity would leave an indelible mark on me. She would teach me without ever knowing that I watched her once, envious of the grandfather’s hand she held and the simple knowledge of holding life in the other.
Later that evening, after all of the brown paper packages were put away, I came across a poem by Rumi, the Muslim poet and theologian. In the poem, two lines landed on the place where I held the Little Potato Girl in my memory and I felt the message become clear.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
It’s not difficult for me to be thankful during the holidays. I have my health and the love of a family whose humor and energy recharges even the weakest of personal batteries. I am warm and clothed, my hunger for food and faith satiated by my mother’s table and my God’s. The Christmas tree held thoughtful gifts that revealed an understanding of who I am and the desire to make my life a little easier, a little more fun.
To be thankful now is a given.
To be grateful, to thank Spirit (or God or Allah or Whatever) when all you have is a potato… Well, that’s a different story.
2016 may have held a lot of loss for you. It may have filled you with fear until you leaked, spilling it back out to those around you. You may have hated (on a candidate, on a demographic, on a family member). You may have mourned (f0r a candidate, for a demographic, for a family member). The money may not have always been there, as it surely had not been for me. You may have worked too hard and slept too little. The kids may have pushed your buttons one too many times.
But, if the Little Potato Girl taught me anything, it’s that there is always something to be grateful for, always something to celebrate. Each morning may not feel like Christmas morning, joy may not have permeated the world, despite our best intentions, but if we approach every day with the same grace, humility, and joy as the three-year-old with a potato, we might find that those magic words of Love, Beauty, and Faith have met us somewhere in the middle.