The Girl Who Loved Christmas
I had always wanted a Christmas baby; a special gift at a special time. When my fifth child was due to be born on December 25th, I was ecstatic, but nervous about the likely prospect of spending the holidays in the hospital. I just had to be home for Christmas. Somehow I conveyed that message to my overly ripe body and delivered the baby 10 days before Christmas Eve. Noelle Marie, French for ‘Merry Christmas,’ entered the world with a caul over her face, a white ‘Angel’s veil,’ reputed through legend to be a sign of a lucky or gifted child. I pondered that phenomenon in my heart, briefly, but was more impressed by the fact that the two of us had conspired to be home for Christmas — home with her father and four excited siblings.
I distinctly remember that Christmas Eve. It was snowing, a soft and silent snow that blanketed our tiny home in white velvet. We laid the baby in a cradle in front of the scraggly ‘Charlie Brown’ pine tree, decorated with homemade ornaments and tediously strung popcorn. Next to her sat the wooden manger housing the Holy Family, which her father had made, topped with a beaming ceramic guardian angel, that had fallen off the nail at the top of the pointed roof so many times that her smile was chipped and crooked. Noelle, dressed in a red and white Santa Claus jumpsuit, resembled a tiny elf as she gazed up at the colored lights on the tree with unfocused eyes, wrinkled and funny-faced, unaware of her status.
Today, when remembering Christmases past, that day waxes sharp in my memory, followed by other Christmases, some joyous, some harried with six children throwing up. That year, unbeknownst to her father and me, Noelle and her sisters sampled the eggnog. We found 11-year-old Noelle trying to fly like an airplane around the large dining room table until she collapsed into a fit of giggles. Needless to say, they were all severely reprimanded, putting a slight damper on that Christmas.
Noelle insisted that we watch every Christmas television special as a family, sobbed each year over ‘It's a Wonderful Life,’ and generally drove us to distraction with her frantic preparations for the holiday. One Christmas we baked flour dough ornaments, and one of Noelle’s gingerbread boys looked exactly like ‘Mr. Bill,’ on Saturday Night Live, which forever gave him a special place on the tree; second in importance only to the bedraggled Angel that dangled off the treetop. Noelle refused to part with or replace any of our original decorations, which were all beginning to show their age. She was contagious with her love for Christmas, and bonded with the holiday almost as if her name gave her an aura or presence that ordinary-named portals could not grasp.
She loved baking the cookies, decorating the tree, attending midnight Mass, and sharing in the giving of gifts, no matter how great or small. The season was hers. She reveled in it. Her zest for the holidays, however, did not extend to cleaning the house or washing the mountains of dishes following sumptuous holiday feasts. She talked about helping, and insisted she did more than her share, but somehow had a unique ability to disappear from the face of the earth whenever chores needed to be done. And even in a household of five outraged siblings, she usually got away with it.
This Christmas, 23 years after her birth, I still marvel at the magic of the season, coveting the memories of a newborn babe lying beneath the Christmas tree, personifying the birth of Christ; and the magic of a young girl who cherished the celebration of the birth of the King, and knew how to give homage. That magic will never die.
Noelle’s last Christmas fell right after her 13th birthday. She was nearly a young woman then, with the gangliness of puberty rushing headlong into the promise of beautiful womanhood. But on ‘her holiday’ she retained the naivety of a child, bursting with love and eagerness. The pond behind our house froze solid that year, and the logs in the old Ben Franklin stove blazed warmth and comfort to six nearly frozen ice skaters. Noelle, as on every year, caught us all up in her joy and excitement. She could barely contain herself.
The Christmas which shortly followed her death, caused by a drunk driver, was not somber. We were obligated by unknown forces to celebrate Christmas in her honor as she would have; and in doing so eased our grief.
Other subsequent Christmases, not shielded by shock, were not so easy, and for several years Christmas without Noelle seemed a contradiction in terms. As passing years made our sorrow bearable the ambience Noelle evoked at Christmas slowly drifted back into our lives. Maybe it was the birth of her first nephew, born two years later on the day of Noelle’s death; her way of not allowing us to mourn that day? Maybe it was just the lapsing of time and life renewing itself. Maybe she taught us, albeit we fought the knowledge, that love lives on though life is fragile. I don't know. I only know that the true spirit of Christmas was shown to me through the eyes of a lovely young girl named Noelle Marie.