First, there should be snow: big, thick flakes emptying out of a high, silvery sky, pouring down on bundled-up figures hurrying along crowded, downtown streets.
Then there should be bells: jingling, one-note sounds flung out into the frosty air by jolly Salvation Army Santas.
There should be breathtaking store windows: fantastic re-creations of Santa's workshop at the North Pole, full of gingerbread houses, electric trains and mechanical elves hammering imaginary nails into toys.
There should be smells, also: the scent of hot, roasted peanuts being spooned into shoppers' hands by the man in the peanut suit, and the bracing fragrance from Christmas trees -- spruce and fir and pine -- being sold on the corner.
How thrilling it was, to be a child at Christmastime! To shop in the department stores with their lavish displays of sleighs pulled by reindeer and golden cherubs rising up from glistening clouds of white silk. And to walk, holding your mother's hand, through the toy department to the great throne where Santa Claus held court, his head tilted low to catch the gossamer thread of each child's dreams.
My dream, the Christmas I turned 8, had to do with a mirrored dressing table for my bedroom. After seeing one in a girlfriend's room I had thought of little else but this sophisticated piece of furniture with its round mirror attached to a skirted table.
It topped my Christmas list that year, but my mother warned me -- as she did every year -- that just because you put something on a list didn't mean you would get it.
Still, I was obsessed with the idea. I imagined myself sitting in front of the mirror, brushing my hair. And I planned the exact way I would arrange the bottle of green bubble bath crystals next to the heart-shaped frame that held my father's picture.
As Christmas Day approached, however, I grew anxious. I tried, without success, to trick my mother into dropping a hint about whether or not there would be a dressing table under the tree. "You'll just have to wait until the stars grow pale," she would tell me.
She was referring to a Christmas tradition in my family, one which had its beginnings long ago when my brother and I were little. Told that we were not to get up in the middle of the night to open our Christmas presents, he asked my mother, "But how will we know when it's all right for us to get up and start Christmas?"
After a brief silence, she answered, "You'll know it's time to get up when the stars grow pale. If you can look up at the sky and see no stars, then Christmas Day has begun."
That year, the year of the dressing table, I was more excited on Christmas Eve than ever before. But, to my surprise, once in bed I fell asleep right away. An hour later, I was wide awake. And although it was dark outside, I went to the window to look at the sky.
I looked up. The stars were still bright.
But I couldn't sleep. So, wrapped in a blanket, I sat at the window, looking through the white frost that edged the corners of the glass panes. Outside, a faint streak of smoke was rising from a neighbor's chimney; a few scattered lights blinked in the houses below. I imagined parents in their kitchens, wrapping presents, putting toys together.
I looked up. The stars were still bright.
Down in the alley, I watched a black cat walk through the halo of yellow light cast by the street lamp. A car rumbled by. A man
opened a kitchen door and put out a trash bag. Watching, I fell asleep.
I was awakened by my brother. "It's time!" he shouted. I looked up. The stars had grown pale. We ran down the steps, past the window where my cat, his gray fur tipped with white snow, patiently waited to be let in. He would have to wait a little longer, I thought, racing to the living room.
I rounded the corner and there it was: the object of my desires, topped with a silver ribbon.
Even now, as I write this, I remember exactly what I felt at that moment: a deep affection for a world in which it was possible to be so happy.
And over the years a wonderful thing has happened to this good memory: It now not only goes backward into the past -- it goes forward into the future as well.
It's true. Standing here on this high point in my past, I can look out and see the future. I can see Christmas Days yet to come -- days in which gray cats will continue to race into the house trailing tips of snow and children will continue to wake up excited.
And I can see that always -- always -- morning will break and the stars will grow pale.