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The year of the perfect Christmas

THE years move on, and each year, slowly, inevitably, December comes, and there's a stirring in my heart like a child's clock ticking a nursery rhyme: ``Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's....'' From halfway round the world, a daughter's family was coming home, all the way from Vanuatu. And up and down the East Coast, the telephone lines were singing, calling to brothers and sisters; and bags and cars were stuffed with surprises marvelous and ludicrous, wrapped with spangled tissue and tied with yards of shining ribbon.

A spruce, mysterious and tall, was waiting in our living room, and in the kitchen were cakes with crystallized cherries and sugared lemon peels and pineapple. And in the basement icebox lay a turkey, plump and gorgeous, serenely confident of chestnut and sage dressing, with cranberries on the side. And then the door was swinging open, and the hush was splintered with shouts, and there was a blur of bright faces and scampering legs, and the new baby was howling at the derangement of his private order. An uncle, arriving late, staggering behind a bag of presents, was met by a grandson who said, most decorously, before any introduction, ``Would you care to sleep with us? We have a spare bed in our room.''

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And oh, the mishaps, with 16 folks in a house with only one bathroom, despite the awesome array of cots and beds stuffed in corners. Someone hung a board on the door for listing expected time of occupancy, but somebody stole the pencil. Jacks tumbled out of small pockets onto the floor, snaring at least one aunt's foot; and scurrying small frames rushed up the three flights of stairs to race bottoms bumping down, ending in leaps and bounds.

A neighbor stopping by heard me on the phone to the butcher, saying quite casually, ``Please, don't swing from the Christmas tree,'' as I caught a rustling of bulbs and cascading tinsel. And things were lost, like the other sock and a left shoe; an uncle happened on his bank passbook in the tub, and the telephone book was found, quite by accident, in someone's car. And I couldn't locate my desk chair, as it was camouflaged by a ton of wraps, leaving the typewriter suspended in limbo.

On a clear morning, the whole tribe took the suburban train to Philadelphia and climbed the stairs in the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street to sit under the huge crystal chandelier and see ``The Nutcracker.'' And the orchestra struck up and the immense red velvet curtains slowly parted, revealing a little girl just like every little girl wants to be. And afterward, half blinking in the sunlight, we strode down Broad Street as though any second we ourselves could be pirouetting in shimmering gauze.

At the restaurant, the smell of croissants hailed us, and taking over four tables, we chomped down pastry, with the littlest girl insisting on not one but two pain au chocolat. Every crumb she ate, smiling, knowing this showed who was the most important.

THAT night we went to the Italian section of South Philly, to the violinmaker who has, over the years, kept our instruments singing. Stepping carefully through the street rubbish, we mounted the marble step and entered to find a homemade welcome of cakes and anise cookies.

In the basement the master craftsman had laid out a world of trains, and when the light was snapped off, tiny villages lighted up with hotels and stations and flowered homes, as the trains went round and round, through tunnels and over trestles and past guardrails that lifted miraculously just in time.

At Christmas Eve Children's Service, Herod, magnificent in his mother's purple cape, scarcely heard the Three Kings, he was concentrating so hard on his one line, which he blasted out with hardened guile - ``Go seek out the young child!''

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Christmas Day was a madcap tumble of stockings from the fireplace and torn tissues and toys. Up and down the staircase and in and out of rooms, a small boy was running with a shining red engine that puffed real smoke, and all through that night in my sleep I heard its whistle, like an echo from my childhood.

And on New Year's Eve, there was plum pudding; tucked in its succulent richness were silver coins from Fiji. At the stroke of midnight we all went out on the deck, even the littlest, half asleep in her father's arms. Holding hands, we sang ``Auld Lang Syne,'' drinking our own cup of kindness for the days ahead. And I remembered one son as a little boy, years ago, rushing out and crying, ``Happy New Year, World,'' to the dark yard.

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