Why this Christmas means more than ever. 

Mountains of Memory

In a recent weekend I raked leaves for the first time in a while. It felt good to be out in the crisp air and the sun. I found myself worrying about the lack of rain, then marveling that I was doing that. Rain, of all things!

The holidays are coming just in time. We're coming out of it now, out of that slow, stunned feeling. We're stretching and going outside, blinking.

It's been a while since it happened. Long enough for it have become shorthand — the events, the tragic events, The Attack. The images are fading into reruns. Already, most of them are looking like images from a history special we'll watch someday.

Now people are turning to other things. Harry Potter. Politics. The next phase of war. And, of course, what's going to happen on Christmas.

Until this year, Christmas was simple for me — presents, a tree (or not), phone calls to make.

This year, though, as the military drives the Taliban from their strongholds in Afghanistan I am seeing Christmas through what seems to be double or triple vision, layers of memory and meaning intertwined. On one level is what's happening in my former hometown of Kabul. On the other is a renewed understanding of the meaning of the season.

The earliest Christmases I remember were crisp, cold, clear days. Until I was 5 we lived in Kabul, where my father was stationed with the Foreign Service. For me, it was a place of genies and magic, a bejeweled place from a fairy tale. It was an ancient valley kingdom near the Himalayas, a place we could travel along the same mountain trails as Alexander the Great, through the Hindu Kush and along roadways that cling tenaciously to the jagged peaks and pale-green valleys.

The air in Afghanistan is thin and cold and mountainous, and it cuts through wool mittens. It slips icily into your throat and makes your ears numb. When snow comes, which is rarely, it is thready and sparse.

The sound of the muezzins' ululating calls to prayer woke me every day. The memory of that sound troubles me now, that it has been associated with the Taliban and their violence, but it comforted me then.

I went to an American school, so I knew lots of children. But my greatest friends were the Afghans who worked for my parents. They were well-off people by Kabul standards, which admittedly isn't saying a lot.

One, Naruz, ran my household. He was always kind to me, and gave me peanut-butter cookies he had made with cross-hatching on top. Once, when I got the brilliant idea of filling glass Coke bottles with water and smashing them against an outside wall, he stopped me, cleaned up the mess and scolded me. He never told my parents about it. I never did it again.

Naruz once invited us to a cousin's wedding, and I watched goggle-eyed as we were presented a towering plate of pilaf. In my memory the plate is as big around as a truck tire, heaped with golden rice studded with amber raisins. I fell asleep at the dinner table, cradled in my mother's arms, surrounded by glittering fabrics and veiled women like a pasha in the "Arabian Nights."

Once on a holiday trip to Kandahar we stopped to wash in a rocky, shallow stream that was so cold our legs were numb. The water spilled down from the breathless hills — it was just barely beyond being snow. All around us nodded great fields of scarlet poppies.

So as I think about Christmas now, I see Naruz, and I wonder if he's alive. I wonder if his cousin who got married that wedding night is alive, or their children, or the boys I met on the streets of Kabul. If the tumbled piles of rubble that I've seen in pictures of Kabul are any indication, the odds are good that they are not. When I think of them I am brokenhearted. I believe the war there is just, and I do not regret this country's mission there. I know the people I knew then, if they are alive, are rejoicing at the Taliban's defeat. But when I watch the news it still feels as though my childhood memories are being blown to dust.

That is one layer of meaning for me this holiday season.

But at the same time another message calls to me. I, like a lot of people, feel more strongly than ever this year the pull of my family. The holidays pull together the strands of our widespread families, and by enfolding them in rituals and nostalgia give us a chance to re-weave them.

I feel quite sure that this year the children will receive more embraces and more sweets, more talk about Santa Claus, than ever. The toys will be hauled from their boxes. I will pull out the old family stories and bore people with them again. And I will recall my mother's old creche and its threadbare manger, and I will remember the ways my parents enveloped us in traditions. Those traditions tied us to our history and to our families, no matter how far we had traveled — to Afghanistan, and beyond — or how far they had receded.

This year I see Christmas through another lens — that of my 4-year-old boy. These years are his earliest Christmas memories. And so we will work to create a childhood Christmas that will sustain him the way mine has sustained me.

Merry Christmas, and good will to all.


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