It was the only night of the year that I might be allowed to stay up until midnight. MIGHT. There was magic in that alone - the deep night, which was a stranger to me, and every passing moment made it deeper and stranger and more magical.
The tree wasn't a Christmas tree, it was a New Year's Fir, and it was decorated by those classic glass ornaments that you only see in vintage catalogues these days. And chains of tinsel. If we had lights, they were real candles - yes, that was a more innocent time - I remember tiny candleholders that pinched onto the ends of the evergreen branches, and although I cannot in all honesty tell you now that I remember clearly a tree that was aglow with these candles I can also guarantee you that if it did happen there was nobody standing by wringing their hands and holding the household fire extinguisher. (There WAS no household fire extinguisher. Such things were unheard of.)
The tree had presents underneath it, brought by Grandfather Frost. He looked an awful lot like Santa Claus except that there was no pretence that he was anything saintly, just a jolly old gent from the North Pole or some such place with a fluffy white beard and a red coat. If there was any mention of reindeer, I don't remember it - I certainly don't recall having heard of Donner, Blitzen, Vixen and company (and certainly not Rudolph) until I crossed through the veil and emerged into the Western Christmasland on the other side. I don't think I gave it much thought - at the very least I can't tell you exactly what I believed - but Santa/Grandpa Frost didn't arrive via chimney. I was a kid of the apartment block. The apartment I best remember was three rooms on the first floor of a small residential building on a tree-lined street; before that, we had lived on the tenth floor of a concrete skyscraper. My grandparents lived in an older house which was heated by something called "kaljeva pec", which was a wood and coal burning free-standing in-room furnace faced with ceramic tiles which gave wonderful warmth - but the burning part was accessed by a small iron gate at the foot of the furnace. I didn't know what a chimney WAS, open fireplaces were not the norm anywhere, and if Grandpa Frost attempted ingress through the furnace he would have had his work cut out for him, indeed. So my childhood beliefs were far more nebulous than a Western kid's might have been. Grandpa Frost just... arrived, on New Year's Eve, and the packages were there under the tree.
I cannot for the life of me remember any of my childhood presents. I know I had lots of lovely dolls - not Barbies, real dolls, the kind that are a foot or two feet tall, with real hair and eyes that closed (I wish I knew what became of those, eventually - I'd like to think some other kid found joy in them somewhere along the line...) but I remember a present we once conspired to give my grandfather. Yes, THAT grandfather. The poet. The lover of language in all its shapes and forms. We bought him a large lavish volume on grammar - only he would have found something to love in that, but hey, we knew that, so that's why we got it - but we then put the book inside a conveniently sized box that had once held chocolates before we wrapped it up for him. (Digression - chocolate boxes - does anyone actually remember chocolate boxes? The ones with pretty pictures on the lid, made of hard heavy cardboard, with chocolates nestled inside in individual rustly paper cups... and wrapped in foil, which I as a kid used to take off carefully, smooth it out on a hard surface with a fingernail, and lay the bright shiny things away between the pages of books - I still have one fall out of some old book sometimes, forgotten there these twenty years or more...) When we handed Grandpa his present, he unwrapped it and found... the chocolate box. Now he had a sweet tooth, don't let's dismiss that, so as far as presents go he knew he would have got something out of it - but the appreciation on his face was muted, adequate, shall we say, for receiving a box of chocolates. He was pleased, but no more than that. And then we all said, "Open it! Open it!" and he probably thought we wanted to plunder his prize - but he good-naturedly complied... and then his face lit up, for real, when he lifted the flowery chocolate box lid and saw the book nestled within. I still remember that luminous smile as he looked up from his treasure. I think that was the moment I learned how to love giving the perfect gift - I have been chasing that smile through the years, on the faces of family and of friends, a sign that I had thought about who and what that person was and that I had chosen something that would not give just pleasure, that would give *joy*.
The deep dark December days were usually snowy, and frost would put a hard glitter on the snow which twinkled under 19th-century streetlights as I walked down the wide avenue downtown where the tables were set out selling new year's cards and tinsel decorations for trees. The snow crunched underfoot and my breath misted out in front of me, my hand in the hand of a grandparent or a parent, dancing along on the snow, mittened, a woollen hat stuffed down across my ears, feet in small sturdy boots, looking up at the glow of the streetlights, at the smiles of the passers-by, at the sky that was either low and luminously gray and heavy with snow still to come or full of sharp twinkling winter stars.
And soon, soon, that midnight hour would come, and the clocks would chime twelve... and the magic would happen, and the year would change. SOmehow, I didn't know how, but somehow things were different the next morning. The world had taken a breath, held it at midnight, and on the morning after it exhaled, and started thinking again of the tomorrows that were coming. New plans, new duties, new everything crowded in. It was tradition to wear something new on New Year's Day morning, just to symbolise the new beginning. Come a few weeks or a few months, everyone's birthday would roll around again, and we'd all be a year older - but we already WERE a year older, magically, on New Year's Day morning because the clocks had chimed, and the midnight hour had struck, and the world had changed yet again, turned underneath us. And we continued. It was a magic spell, a charm, we had to do the right things and say the right things and look up at the right star or it would all vanish at midnight and we would be no more than a fading dream.
Perhaps that was why I found it so hard - so impossible - to live with the Southern Hemisphere where I spent half my life. I grew to know and love that sky, too - the Southern Cross is still the only constellation I can identify without an instant's hesitation - but it was just so WRONG to have this magical moment, this midnight hour, fall at high summer, and the new year celebrations and parties being thrown on beaches and around barbeques with people wearing swimming costumes and flip flops. It was wrong. WRONG. There should be frosty snow, and misting breath, and a child's high happy laugh on a winter night under winter skies.
I remember those years.
I remember the light of my grandfather's smile.
I remember waking up and feeling all new, all different, older, greater, more full to the brim of brand new thoughts and passions and ambitions.
New Year's Eve still makes me tingle inside with the memory of those things.
My bedtime has long since been my own to set and midnight has lost its enchantment - I suppose I could have expected that, everything that becomes freely accessible and without restrictions inevitably becomes workaday and humdrum and mundane eventually. I've been awake many a midnight since I was a small child waiting breathlessly for the year and the world to change around me. But it's still there on THIS night of all nights - although I know that I can stay up until midnight, or two AM, or four AM, any time I choose I am a child again on New Year's Eve, awaiting midnight, knowing that somehow somewhere the whole world is doing it with me as the seconds tick away.
And they come at midnight, the ghosts. The ones I have loved, and lost. And even though I am no longer a child, the dark winter night is still lit up with me with the glowing joy in my grandfather's smile. I still wish them Happy New Year, my loved and vanished dead. They live within me, within my memory.
The world has turned yet again. We are in 2009, a year that looks like it belongs in science fiction stories and not my everyday reality. But here it is, and here I am, and we are going forward together, the new year and I... and my ghosts.
May it be good for you all, this new year, whose first day I tore off the calendar today. May it bring you joys and memories. See you again the next time the world turns older.