It was the week before Christmas, and my daughter, her hair tied up snugly in a bun, plops herself down in the front seat of my car. And as I aim my trusty German import in the direction of her ballet school, she turns to me, her face aglow in the gray afternoon light, a plea in her eyes.
“Can you turn on your Christmas playlist, Daddy?” she asks.
“Of course,” I tell her.
At a stop sign, I fiddle with my phone, tap the Spotify app, and in a couple of seconds my 12-year-old and I are singing along at the top of our lungs to an absolute holiday classic:
“Fiiiiivvveeeee .... golden ... toookkssss ...” we bellow.
I’m talking about, of course, the Bob and Doug McKenzie version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
This cheeseball piece of 1980s holiday brilliance foisted on the world by comics Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas never fails to reduce my child to a molten pile of giggles.
That cracked chestnut of a carol comes after Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” but before the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version of “Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.”
We sing along – unapologetically – to all of them. She knows all the words. So I’ve done my job as a father, I think, as we drive along, our New Wave carol sing in full force.
And it occurs to me that it’s those little moments, the rituals we observe at this time of year, that are the glue that binds us together. They’re the north stars that help us find our way back to each other, no matter how fractious our times.
We have plenty of holiday traditions in my house. There’s the elf that magically appears after Thanksgiving, migrating from room to room every morning, popping up in the most unlikely of places. We go together for our tree, decorating it as Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” plays in the background.
Because my wife and I are a mixed-faith couple, we’ve been lighting Hanukkah candles every night, reciting the prayers that my wife recited as a little girl, and that my daughter recites now.
She’s excited about the presents, of course. And the fact that our new house has a chimney that Santa can actually come down this year, instead of engaging in the creative acts of B&E that allowed him to drop off presents at the old place.
In the middle of it all, I’ll try to swim upstream, fighting the tides of commerce, to tell my skeptical, science-minded child the biblical Christmas story that I grew up with.
I’ll grab a quiet hour, too, for midnight mass.
There are latkes and Christmas dinner. It’s the Italian-style meal of my youth: Soup, pasta, some kind of roast meat and vegetable. Salad at the end, because my Nonna didn’t raise a savage. Then dessert and coffee.
At night, we’ll go for a drive through the darkness and gawk at the lights, that Christmas playlist playing softly in the car, because those were the songs that soundtracked a million Christmases of my youth, when my nose was pressed against cold window glass as the lights whizzed by.
My wife, I think, indulges me a bit. And that’s a gift by itself.
We’re forging new traditions in the midst of the old ones, just like we all do when we grow up, and Christmas becomes about way more than just toys and racing downstairs to see what’s under the tree.
It’s an appreciation tempered by age, and sometimes loss. Because we want to honor the rituals and traditions passed onto us by people who are no longer with us, like my Italian immigrant grandparents, but who are ever-present nonetheless.
Memory is a powerful thing. And it’s the memories that my daughter is forging now, at this time of year, that will keep her warm in the years to come, that will provide a through line from the little girl she is now to the woman she has yet to become.
And that makes me hope that someday, when she’s older, and her own child plops into the front seat beside her, that my daughter will smile cryptically, hit a button, and that the strains of Bob and Doug McKenzie’s “12 Days of Christmas” will blast out of the speakers.
At first, her child will look at her like she’s insane, like my daughter did, and then, she (or he) will just give in and sing along.
At the top of his or her little lungs.