Silas Wilde with Christmas tree and his Grammy Bonnie pictured over his shoulder. Photo by Dana Wilde

My grandson Silas, who’s 6, is all about Christmas, of course.

I say “of course” because his families on both sides traditionally recognize Christmas rather than Hanukkah, Ramadan, Vesak or another holiday. There is a sense in which they all come to the same general thing. Or at least, they would in Silas’ mind.

He’s been at my house a lot lately because of family logistics. Last week while his dad was finishing his shift at work, Silas and I set up the Christmas tree. This was a bittersweet moment I knew was coming. It’s the first tree and decorations set up without his Grammy Bonnie.

I knew he’d be psyched to do this with me, but the intensity of his interest kind of took me by surprise. The perennial river of presents Bonnie created under the tree is strong in his imagination, even though he remembers at most three of them.

“There’s presents all the way out to here,” he said, showing me a spot he’s anticipating 2 or 3 feet beyond the perimeter of the lower boughs and lights.

“Where are the stockings going to go, Poppop?” He walks toward the antique fold-out desk Bonnie’s grandmother passed to her from a grandmother before. “We need to hang them up here so Santa knows where they’re supposed to be.”


“Yes,” I say. “We have to look for the stockings. I’m not sure where they got stored.” Grammy would know, of course.

As we hung ornaments on the tree, we commented on homemade wooden cutouts of reindeer with names of family members inked or sparkled on them, others that came back with us from Christmases in Eastern Europe and China.

A shiny blue ball: “I like this one, who got this one, Poppop?”

“Grammy got that in a little glass-blowing shop in Bulgaria.”

He has no idea where Bulgaria or China are, but he knows place names have significance. The most significant place name right now is “California,” where Uncle John, Bonnie’s brother, lives. Silas wants badly to go to California.

He has big plans for Christmas Day, and this is where it starts to dawn on me there is more going on than decorations and presents. He names his cousins, 10, 15, 17 years older than him, and goes into detail about when they’re going to arrive, where each one is going to sit, who’s going to pass out each present to everyone in the room, and whether there are enough spots on the desk to hang everyone’s stocking. Santa’s got to be able to find everyone’s stocking.


His imagination is overflowing with the gathering of the family.

I know exactly where he gets this from. Not from me, nor his mom, nor his dad, who are for various reasons low-key about the holidays. He gets this directly from Grammy Bonnie.

For her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion. She rejected her childhood brush with the Lutheran church by the time she was about 12. But Christmas was nonetheless a holiday of well and truly religious feeling to her. It was the time when her closest family members gathered, and she could express her love for them all by creating a river of presents and a special dinner.

Silas has her feeling for Christmas. How he came by it is a curious question. In a way, he’s learned to cherish the gatherings by watching and participating. But the depth of his feeling implies deeper sources. It’s something you might offhandedly say is “in his DNA,” which I can accept as possibly accurate. But even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain anything. It just describes a biochemical mechanism. A strange mechanism, no doubt. But it has nothing to say about the experiential reality. You couldn’t find love in DNA even if it was there.

In the course of nature, Homo sapiens form families, friendships and bands. You can watch it happen when you’re traveling. People who speak the same language in a foreign country gravitate together in airports and dormitories. They almost immediately start watching out for each other, forming little social units. Emotional bonds take shape quickly. Loyalties, responsibilities and affections build up like some kind of magic is at work. Given enough time, love affairs, sometimes fleeting, sometimes longer lasting, transpire seemingly inevitably. Families originate from this natural unifying process.

The emotional and moral webworks of a family tend to be much stronger and last longer than the friendships do. As the sociologists have long depicted, the family webworks expand into community webworks. Humans do this everywhere naturally, from aboriginal forest bands to atheists in postmodern Maine. In China, they call your family and social webwork your guanxi.


There are myriad ways this webwork can go sideways. Some people have stronger moral sensibilities than others. Why this happens is as impossible to locate in DNA as love. It’s similar to the fact — which took me a few years of teaching college literature classes to realize —  that some people easily recognize irony, while others don’t. Some people have a clear understanding of guanxi, others less so.

Silas has powerful moral sensibilities. I think he got them largely from Grammy Bonnie. The cohesion and closeness of the family is innately very important to him. A couple of years ago he was gleefully making little 4-year-old speeches at the dinner table, unprompted, about “my family.” He goes through spells of wanting to go over and over the family photographs Grammy Bonnie carefully arranged around the house.

I think most people understand what this means, because most people experience it to one extent or another.

When I say “most people,” I mean the people who celebrate Hanukkah, Ramadan, Vesak, solstice, the New Year holiday in China when over about a two-week period hundreds of millions of people bus, train and fly home. Myriad other holidays whose roots are in the recognition of powerful feelings of emotional, moral and spiritual unity.

This goes well beyond a biological mechanism for survival of the band. Unity is the common, root experience of all religious feeling.

Silas is all about Christmas.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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