On my parents’ Christmas tree hangs a wooden train ornament. It is a simple, quaint expression of the youthful joys of the holidays — not the flashy hi-techitude of the laser-cut teddy bear that hangs nearby.
It doesn’t provide the luminescence of its glass-blown cousins on the lower branches (placed nearer to the gifts so that if gravity should loosen them from the plastic pine-needles, they have far less to fall). The train’s wheels don’t move. It does nothing to hide the glue that binds its pieces together. It is nothing special, to the casual eye.
Every year as a child, I waited for that train to come out of the ornament box. It was “my” train to hang. Each piece — the green smoke stack, the yellow body, the red wheels — each was hand-painted in a primary color that was brilliant in its own right.
It wasn’t computer-etched or battery-powered because it didn’t need to be. The train was a magnificent sum of its parts and held a dignified beauty in its plainness.
I had never seen a thing like it in my life and every year I marveled at how simple it was. If I was late for the Christmas Eve dinner bell, it may have been because I sat staring at the tiny train for too long. In a small family, your absence is obvious — my parents, grandparents and sister were already loading their plates, but the train was making me late. Years later, as a Boston commuter, I would repeat that excuse.
Today when we can’t visit family for Christmas, my wife and I hold a little buffet for two. I enjoy the quiet dinner a little more each year, thankful for our health and our families and hopeful for good fortunes in the coming year.
In a way, our quiet Christmas tradition is almost its own reward for the days that precede it. Just this week, we braved the parking lot of the Burbank Trader Joe’s to pick up last-minute items for the meal. It’s hard enough navigating the parking lot there on a regular day, never mind two days before Christmas.
A large truck stole my parking spot. A man in line asked me how long I’d been waiting when I approached the register — implying that I’d cut in front of him. A woman ran her cart into mine in an attempt to access the avocados. I shrank back to the Honeycrisps, hoping if I became one with the produce, I’d avoid her and the rest of the shoppers altogether.
The weaving and dodging continued like this well into the parking lot where vehicles fended for themselves like a scene from “Mad Max.” Once we achieved the relative calm of the open road, my wife reminded me that we had no place to be, no agenda to fulfill.
It hit me later while nursing cart-wounds: Pushing people out of the way to get the store’s last ham for Christmas dinner may seem like a mission to support our families, but we’re still only serving ourselves. Stepping aside to let another person pass, or giving up a parking space — these are ways I could be more civil. And they’re not limited to one time of year, although most of us treat them this way.
The rush to buy things, the checklist of gifts — these are the laser-etchings we put on the holidays. The whole point is to find the beacon shining brightest in the branches, and hang onto it even if it makes you a little late for dinner.