Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.
At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.
My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.
My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.
We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.
On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.
Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.
My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.
Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.
It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.