Milan Kundera wrote that happiness is the longing for repetition, and there’s nothing more repetitive that brings more happiness than holiday traditions. For me, each year my parents would take both me and my sister to a small farm in upstate New York where Dad would somehow expertly wield a handsaw and chop down our tree. We would decorate it with colored lights and bright gold garlands because Mom (who loved Christmas more than anyone) appreciated the childhood whimsy it provoked. On Christmas Eve, we would dress up in our holiday best to attend church, and then come home to prepare the sugar cookies we’d made (slightly burnt and smothered with red and green sprinkles) for Santa’s highly anticipated arrival.
However, what I remember most of all is that every Christmas Eve the four of us would sit on the couch in our pajamas by the light of our multicolored tree and watch the 1983 recording of the Boston Pops holiday concert.
Dad, always the man to videotape just about everything, had randomly recorded the broadcast on WGBH from the year of my birth. Ever since, we watched the recording with John Williams as he led the Pops through the typical holiday favorites. At one point the audience (and we) would join in on a sing-a-long and Lorne Greene would read ’ Twas the Night Before Christmas . At the end, Santa Claus (who my sister and I always insisted was the real Santa) would come through the back doors of Symphony Hall and give out candy canes on his way up to the podium, before brandishing at Maestro Williams a miniature E.T. (the film had just come out) in black tie holding a conductors baton.
Every year it was the same. The same performance with audience members whose clothes and hairstyles began to look more and more dated as the years progressed.
This was our repetition. This was our happiness.
As fate would have it, I ended up going to college at Northeastern, right down the street from Symphony Hall. When each season’s concert schedule was announced my parents would suggest we get tickets to see the real thing. But every year we didn’t get around to it, always saying, “We’ll do it next year.”
By the time I graduated in 2005, my sister and I began to feel too old to be bothered with sitting on the couch through yet another predictable performance. We muttered that singing along was lame, while busy texting friends. We watched distractedly for only a few minutes until our frustrated parents gave up and turned it off.
The following year, when we yet again went to put in the tape, we realized with horror that it had somehow been accidently taped over. All that was left now was a blank screen staring back at us. That would be our last Christmas together as a whole family, for a few months later Mom died in a car accident.
Just like that, everything was gone.
As the next holiday season approached, we dreaded what the day would bring without her. I couldn’t help but think about all the chances we’d had to go to the performance live, something I know would have made her happy. Why had we waited so long? And, more importantly, why had it stopped meaning something to me?
Feeling overwhelmed by everything I’d lost, I felt compelled to try to reclaim something. I searched online, made calls, and e-mailed the site contact at Symphony Hall detailing my situation. Finally, just five days before Christmas, a woman in the offices on Massachusetts Avenue wrote me back.
She apologized for the delay and told me they had several strict musician union rules preventing them from sharing archival copies of their performances. However, my letter touched all of the people involved, and everyone there wanted me to have a copy of the concert. They were so touched that the Holiday Pops meant as much to others as it did to them that all I had to do was sign a letter of agreement and she would overnight me the tape.
It arrived just in time. On Christmas Eve, in the quiet sadness of our living room (there would be no tree, there would be no cookies), I told my dad and sister that I had a surprise. I watched as their confused faces turned to shock, and then came great heaves of tears as the familiar sounds and images on the television showed us the one thing we had taken for granted the most-time.
Every year it’s the same. Every year we buy presents and spend too much money and lose our minds while losing sight of what really matters. We grow up and grow bitter and let ourselves forget that at the end of the day we’re all packing and traveling and gift-giving because of the people in our lives that we love. We’re driven by the hopeful idea that something small, like an old recording of a concert, can bring a family together. We say “as soon as,” and “next time,” and “maybe next year,” when we know we shouldn’t be wasting another minute. We stop believing-in people and the innocence of youth-and become accustomed to coming home to certain things that once are gone leave holes in our hearts nothing can ever repair.
They say you can’t go home again, but we all keep going home every year to a place that constantly changes, a place that means different things to each of us in different parts of our lives. There is a lot we can’t control, but it is those repetitive things that we cling to that mean so much more than we oftentimes allow ourselves to admit.
The holidays and my life will never be the same without my mother. However, now that I can’t have her here in the present I can at least have the tape as a reminder of her and the way things once were. That way, during this season of expectation and hope I can believe, for a little while anyway, that not everything has to become lost.
Photograph of family by Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images.