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Making Sense Of the Holiday

In the days after Christmas, a writer considers artifacts that are passed from generation to generation

By Tom Simmons / December 27, 1989



CHRISTMAS is a holiday rife with metaphor, and the heart of it is - Love? Hope? Adventure? Not one of these abstractions is worth the time it takes to write it, unless it comes in the form of a lover, a hoper, an adventurer. As it turns out, that sums up most of us. And so we pursue this simple holiday with the metaphors of our love, our hope, and our wish for adventure - gifts and cards, Christmas trees, and trains around the trees. When I was a child, my mother had a few toys she put away for special occasions; the Christmas train was one of them. It was an old Lionel passenger train, modeled on the Union Pacific steam engines that carried intrepid passengers to California in the 1870s. As it rounded the loop of track, it puffed ingenious smoke and whistled periodically as it passed untold, unseen stations.

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This train belonged to the whole family: We could all touch it, run it, try to fix it when it derailed. There was a kind of odd formality, though, about setting it up, as though Christmas proper could not really begin without it.

We had a duty roster: I would assemble the large pieces of track, while my teenaged brother and sister stood back and smirked (it was OK; they were teenagers; they were supposed to smirk). Then my father attached the wired terminal to the track, fastening the wires to the transformer with his usual oversupply of screwdrivers.

When he plugged it in, my mother would turn the knob, and the train that had not run for a year would creak, whine, shiver, jerk itself awake and suddenly take off, becoming airborne about halfway around the track. Too much power, which my mother always gave it, always derailed it. Nevertheless she was delighted.

``It runs!'' she exclaimed. This was something like saying, ``Let the holiday begin!'' We brought out our presents and laid them near the tree as my father fixed the train and set it running at a proper speed. It might run all evening, or at least until I went to bed.

Because habits tend to hover around us like steam from an antique engine, it might appear that trains at Christmas were just one more habit - an affectation not to be dismissed simply because no one had ever dismissed it. But I don't think that's quite right.

Certainly there was something incongruous about a quiet tree, hovering in a halo of lights and colored balls, above a small electrified monster that steamed vigorously around an endless loop. We all knew that it didn't make sense, but that seemed right somehow. Did Christmas itself make sense? Wasn't the whole point of the holiday that it didn't quite make sense, that it went beyond the usual notions of probability and conformity? Didn't it mean that anything could happen, that any good was possible? Why not a train, then?

A train was something we knew, something familiar, but it was also a modern version of a caravan headed into the desert: It promised adventure, it promised a new start. In the evenings after Christmas, when the presents had had time to settle in and the winter chill asserted its presence, I would sit for hours by the Christmas train, dreaming of the places it might have gone or might go - Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, cities I had only read about in books, cities on a high plateau or on a hilly promontory where the other ocean, the Pacific, plied its ceaseless passage through the Golden Gate.

I did not know, then, that I would move to one of these places, would make a new life there. Yet I hoped, thinking that I might someday make a pilgrimage of my own to a holy place, a place where life opened its promise to the taker of risks.

At the base of the still tree I saw an endless motion, a little loud and garish, but also precise and matter-of-fact, with a seat for the engineer and seats for the passengers, and little windows so that the adventure would not pass unnoticed. Even at a young age I could see how that kind of journey might be not only exciting but essential, as important to life as breath and air.

I MADE that adventure again as I pulled out my old trains and dusted them off, waiting for Christmas eve. My son loves them; he watches them for hours, dreaming of something I do not know but try to guess.

We hand Christmas on this way, with hopes and odd artifacts, the stuff of historians and sociologists, easy to neglect. But we do not neglect the artifacts. As odd, as incongruous as they are, these steam engines and whistles sing the advent of a new day, and half in disbelief - as we always are when traveling - we still step aboard for the ride of our lives.