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After sorrow, once again finding joy in Christmas

A wax candle in the shape of the

A wax candle in the shape of the word "JOY" and the reader's home today with a JOY ornament. Credit: Kathleen Hermann LoPiccolo

It started with joy.

When I was a child growing up in Wantagh, every December I would await the unveiling of a candle in the shape of the word “JOY.”

A burst of chilly air would enter the house as my dad, Jack Hermann, creaked open the attic door of our three-bedroom house.

He’d descend the steep stairs with a succession of wooden crates and dusty bins. The faint tingle of a brass bell could be heard from the depths of a faded cardboard box.

My mother, Marie, would unwrap a small bundle of newsprint holding the three-lettered candle. I’d run and place it on our piano. The joy of the Christmas season had arrived.

Then the house flushed into all shades of red as Mom made everything beautiful, festooning our home in Christmas bows, flowers, tablecloths — even the kitchen curtains. The family joke was that if you stayed in one spot for too long, our mother would cover you in red satin ribbon.

Our ranch house was not very large, but it cradled my two older brothers, my sister and me comfortably, and we loved it.

On Christmas Eve, our grandparents would come from Canarsie, my grandmother carrying a red plaid valise with her overnight things, my grandfather holding shopping bags full of presents and good things to eat. In my teen years, friends and neighbors came and went, and we attended midnight Mass with our two cousins, crowding into the pews at the old St. Raphael Church in East Meadow, since replaced by a bigger structure.

I can close my eyes and see the living room as it was when we returned, every couch and chair covered with a baby niece or nephew, sleeping deeply in their velvet dresses and footed holiday pajamas. Like most houses, there was a tree circled by a toy train, and a feast and a family. All small houses should be so full of joy.

When my mother died at age 74 just before Thanksgiving 2012, I could not bear to even think of joy. But there was that word, confronting me at every turn, embroidered on holiday pillows at Target, in songs on the radio and TV, every commercial, the movies, the winter concert at my children’s school. Everywhere. Everyone. Endless, easy joy.

Joy, the middle name we had given our daughter, Melissa, 10 years earlier. She and my 3-year-old son, Joseph, embodied true, innocent joy. How could I deprive them, despite my deep sadness, of a beautiful, memorable Christmas?

Still, for me, 2012 had been a year without color, so I persuaded my husband, Sal, to bring home an artificial white tree with clear lights, and I covered it with chrystalline angels and sent greeting cards wishing, “Peace to all and a gentle new year,” even if I could not imagine a joyful one.

But I could not bring myself to unwrap the old candle.

Wiser folks than I have said that grief never disappears, but that one must find ways to carry it.

Some days it fits in the small pocket over your heart, other days it is like an old-fashioned steamer trunk, the kind with many handles, and you must find someone strong to help you with the burden.

The older I get, the more I realize that for the adults in my life, perhaps there was a little grief in those boxes from the attic, or hidden in the plaid suitcase and in the shopping bags and the presents and packages — a little sadness, a little heartbreak. We all carry it. We carry on.

Over the past five years, the memories gradually have brought more smiles than tears, and for me, the color is beginning to return to Christmas. I knew it would. I still unwrap that old candle and place it on the same piano, just as my mother liked. Christmas always begins with JOY.

Reader Kathleen Hermann LoPiccolo lives in Wantagh.