The rituals continue cyclical, shifting with age, as we're no longer required to do cutesy little kid Christmasy things like sing "Away In A Manger" to bemused nursing home residents, or plays for the grownups involving costumes made of 1970's colored bath towels and faded bedsheets, until we retreated to the basement to run around and be ninja turtles or whatever, buzzed on sugar.
Most of us are older now, old enough to drink or vote. There's fifteen years between me and the youngest, skinny with glasses and bangs like I once was, her room pink and glittery, an island in a house of sports trophies and pennants. She's a sweet and awkward kid who seems somewhat younger than her tweenage cohort, whose girliness is still ballet slippers and fairies instead of celebrity crushes and lipgloss. She tells me about her dance classes, that she likes to draw, and that she built these fairy houses out of silk flowers and cinnamon sticks for her dolls but seems embarrassed that what she perceives to be her cool older cousin sees this part of her world.
I tell her it's really cool, and I mean it, though I wish her imagination had been stretched even further, that there were more books in the house to be absorbed by osmosis instead of videogames. I wish I had copies to give her of all the fantasy novels I read when I was her age, all the Robin McKinley and Lloyd Alexander paperbacks checked out countless times from the library and read over and over. I wish she had volumes of fairy tales (she'd never heard of Andrew Lang) with illustrations by Bilibin and Dulac and that she'd read the Lord of the Rings instead of just watching the movies. Maybe this will come with time.
I end up missing the vigil this year, because this time we're actually enjoying each other's company and talking about what's actually going on with us even though the ones my age take the cynicism further than I do into borderline paranoia, as we roll dice over a board of the world map and snark about imperialist stoogedom. There is choir music on the radio as I drive home and I commune with the Divine on Route 2 to the crystalline voices floating through the static under the dark skies.
I wake up with scratchy eyes and whisper through the microphone as the others sing, and tonight I find I enjoy the company of pretty much everyone, and as the wine bottles empty, no one's arguing about Iran, but we're talking about books and I don't even know what's on the bestseller list because I've been reading about the Balkans and medieval people and Herodotus so I end up cooing over the baby and trying to speak wisdom into the lives of The Kids who are still caught up in nascent hipsterdom or high school hierarchies remembering when I thought I knew it all.
The drive back to the soon-to-be neighbor's house is quiet, and there's more lonely souls than I remember wandering the street, empty buses, a solitary figure framed in the laundromat window, a pack of young punks scowling beneath the awning of a cell phone shop. The cats are hungry and the street is quiet. A week ahead of sleeping, friends' cats, and packing boxes, feeling like a wanderer with a pile of clothes and sundry in the trunk, grateful for the introversion.