I wasn’t always Jewish. I converted as an adult; as a child I celebrated Christmas. At some point, I can’t remember when or how, it became a tradition in my family for me to read this story aloud on Christmas Eve. Reading it now, I can see that it is set probably in the late 1940s, though back then it seemed timeless, almost mythical to me.
The narrator, writing from the vantage of the 1970s, looks back to the year when he was eleven and living with his family in rural Cape Breton, the beautiful island at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. (Little did I know then that I would later go to university in Halifax and take a last vacation after my graduation with my family across the Cape Breton highlands.) This is the year the boy’s wavering belief in Santa Claus, maintained through a determination to remain a child a little longer, will finally be put to rest. The man he is really waiting for is his older brother, Neil, who works on a freighter on the Great Lakes. Everyone in the family—the narrator’s five other siblings; his anxious mother; his father, sitting beside the fire coughing into a handkerchief, an old man at 42 (now I think he must have been a miner suffering from silicosis)—waits on tenterhooks for the golden son to be released from his toil by the vagaries of the weather: the lakes have to freeze first.
On the morning of the 23rd, a strange car rolls up: out tumbles Neil, along with three buddies who still have to make it to Newfoundland. Neil takes matters in hand: he chops down the tree the narrator has been eyeing for months, he supervises the decorating, he shoes the horse and takes the children to midnight mass over the mountain in a sleigh that is warmed by heated stones, he is solicitous of the father who has clearly declined alarmingly in his absence. When the children return half-frozen and exhilarated from church, the narrator is for the first time invited to stay up. He’s pleased, but also forlorn; he knows a door has closed behind him. The father says, “Every man moves on, but there is no need to grieve.” The boy thinks he is talking about Santa Claus; the adult knows the father is talking about himself.
I think about myself, leaving one life for another. It’s common for Jews by Choice to miss Christmas, and I certainly did the first years. Now the loss the story evokes for me is mostly about the snow, the cold, the Canadian winter I’ve also given up. Reading the story again, I think about how we’re all giving up this weather, no matter where we’re from, as the planet warms and winters like the one MacLeod vividly describes become scarce. Some things no amount of equanimity can redress; some things have to be grieved.
Chosen by Dorian Stuber. Dorian is the Isabelle Peregrin Odyssey Professor of English at Hendrix College. He writes about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.blog. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.