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Ghosts of Christmases past

As children grow up, nostalgia suffuses the holidays.

By Chris Gibbons

It was a few days before Christmas, 2001, and a light snow was steadily falling outside that morning as my two young sons and I were rushing out of the house. Trailing behind them and closing the door, I saw them stop suddenly, startled by the sight of something at the end of our driveway.

"What're you guys looking at?" I said impatiently.

Standing motionless in the swirling snow some 15 yards away were three deer. One was a buck with an impressive set of antlers, his steaming breath billowing up from his nostrils as he struck a majestic pose.

Humans and deer faced each other in the near-silence. The soft patter of the snowflakes hitting our coats was barely audible above the sound of our beating hearts. My son Ryan, then 5, perfected the moment when he softly whispered: "Reindeer!"

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Time travel

I noticed my wife gazing out our kitchen window recently, seemingly lost in her thoughts. "I miss them," she said in a melancholy voice.

I glanced out the window to see what she was looking at. My two now-teenage sons were teaching our neighbor's 4-year-old boy, Cohen, the finer points of street hockey.

"You miss who?" I asked.

"I miss Jack and Ryan," she said. When she noticed my puzzled expression, she added, "I mean, I miss when they were little, like Cohen."

As the street-hockey ball rolled into one of the neat piles of leaves lining the curbs on our street, I remembered that when my boys were Cohen's age, they would joyfully jump in those piles. Now both my wife and I were gazing out the window, and vivid memories of them came flooding back.

I saw them as little boys throwing snowballs, wildly waving at Santa Claus as he rode through our neighborhood on a fire truck, and bounding down the stairs on Christmas morning.

"I miss them, too," I said.

More than any other time of year, the holiday season prompts many of us to fondly recall and sometimes yearn for the past. This innate human tendency has spanned the generations and has often been reflected in popular culture. From Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol through Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life and Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, we find the recurring theme of revisiting Christmas past, either through fictional fantasy or vivid childhood recollections.

Many of us readily identify with this yearning, and for those of us with grown children, the desire to once again experience Christmas morning with them as little girls and boys can sometimes be overwhelming, leading to feelings of regret. Although most of us at one time or another wish we could somehow revisit our past, to either change an outcome or relive a special moment such as a past Christmas, there is a certain risk in dwelling on it too much.

Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, brilliantly addressed this theme in the classic episode "Walking Distance," in which a harried executive's desire to live in the past is so powerful that he is miraculously transported 25 years back in time. In the story's most poignant moment, the man's father asks him why he has come back.

"I've been living in a dead run, and I was tired," he responds. "And one day I knew I had to come back here. I had to get on the merry-go-round and listen to a band concert. I had to stop and breathe, and close my eyes and smell, and listen."

"I guess we all want that," his father says. "Maybe when you go back . . . you'll find there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are. You've been looking behind you. . . . Try looking ahead."

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Wondering spirit

Like the man in the story, I often wish that I could revisit my past. But this Christmas, I'm determined to recognize that the best days of my life are now, not in the past.

The key is not to wish my kids and I were young again, but to approach life with the same wondering spirit I had as a child. So if I get the chance, I might jump in a pile of leaves. Maybe I'll have a snowball fight with Cohen. And if I'm lucky, there might be another snowy morning when I see a buck posing majestically outside my house. And if I hear a voice whispering "Reindeer," this time the voice will be mine.