Friday, 5 December 2008

Welcome, Christmas . . .

A wreath made by my very own hands

I always welcome Christmas with a glad heart, but I know that the season is greeted with weariness, guilt, cynicism, worry, disenchantment and plain old bah-humbuggery in certain quarters.

Last Saturday night, we were at a dinner party where the hostess was holding forth on why she just couldn't get excited about the season's traditional rites: "I don't believe in either Jesus or Santa Claus, so why should I bother?" At the time I just laughed, but on the dark drive home I did ponder her mental predicament. If you lack the dedication to Christianity and commercialism both, is there still a point to Christmas? Yes, I would argue; yes.

Most of the December ritual is pagan in origin, anyway.
The tree, the candles, the presents, the feast: it's all an attempt to cheer ourselves during the darkest days of the year. And if you live in England, or any other northern clime, you will know exactly what I mean. Now that it gets dark at 4:30 pm, the girls and I can't wait to get home, turn on the Christmas lights and drink hot chocolate. My little girl came home with frozen hair the other night -- from a swimming gala! -- and when she was tucked up on the sofa with a bowl of hot buttery popcorn, pink footy pajamas and red blanket happily clashing, her entire body seemed to ooze comfort and contentment.

I know that winter has its charms, but I'm just not naturally inclined to wintriness. I blame my Texas roots for a tendency towards SADness and an overeagerness for spring. When I read that the Scandinavians decorated evergreen trees at the winter solstice as a sort of promise and reminder that spring would come again, it made perfect sense to me. In fact, I like to think that this is why I insist on putting up my Christmas tree the minute the Thanksgiving left-overs are finished.

One of the ongoing and built-in pleasures of life is the cyclical nature of the seasons and their accompanying festivals. I always marvel how the same old traditions need only the passage of time to regain their freshness. Although I may be tired of green and gold and red by January, those colors look just right at the beginning of December. For me, Christmas is a time to reconnect with beloved rituals, but always adding an elaborative twist -- the old and the new twined together.

This year, for a bit of something new, I tried making my own wreath for the first time. Like many things in life, once the process was demystified I realized that it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had thought it would be. Although I made my wreath at the lovely Treetops, anyone with access to a circular green oasis (look for it in a garden centre or a florist's shop) and some greenery could give it a whirl. Our floral guru even assured us that you can just make it up with bits and pieces from the garden! And yes, if you are fortunate enough to have fir and pine, eucalyptus, myrtle, mimosa and skimmia, plus some knobbly things and pine cones and waxed crimson pears, your wreath can look just like the one hanging on my front door!

Wreath-making did put me in touch with my inner Scandinavian, though. We worked in a cold room, to keep the flowers from drooping, and the smell of the pine and other fresh green things was completely intoxicating. There was also something deliciously relaxing about cutting off bits of greenery and placing them (artfully, one hopes) in the giving green foam. In fact, I think that a person should make one wreath for every day spent shopping in a crowded city center! Holiday emotional offsetting, I like to think of it.

I know that some people aren't in the least tradition-bound, but the only Christmas tree for me is one that is strewn with memories. I listen politely when friends tell me of their Christmas themes -- "pearl," or "lime and green" -- but in my heart, color-coordinated trees are just all wrong. A hodge-podge of ornaments is what I like, set off by the simplest white lights. When I was a little girl, my mother started the tradition of buying us a special ornament every year, and as we grew so did our tree. When my brother and I established our own homes, my mother gave us a "starter box" each of our childhood ornaments. (She told me once that it was one of the hardest things she ever did!) One day, I suppose that I will do the same for my own children.

Just as children love looking at pictures of themselves, so do they enjoy revisiting the memories of Christmas (and vacations) past. My children dig through the tissue paper and alternately coo and squeal as each old favorite is rediscovered. Those boxes of ornaments are the best, most comprehensive, scrapbook I keep.

wrote so charmingly this week of Christmas carols: all of those musical associations and family jokes which are recycled every year. For some reason, it seemed that Johnny Mathis's Merry Christmas album was always playing during my family's tree-decorating sessions. I only have to hear Johnny launch into his exuberant versions of "Winter Wonderland" or "Sleigh Ride" to be filled with childish excitement.

As will sometimes happen in family life, this year's designated tree-trimming day was on the emotionally fraught side of the spectrum. Everyone felt tired and strained, the weather was horrid, there was teenage drama over a broken cell phone, and Sigmund felt buried by his workload. Although we had "promised" to decorate the tree that day, I was concerned that the experience would be ruined by bad tempers. Yet, add the music . . . bring down the boxes . . . and the Christmas magic filled the room.

When we finished decorating the tree, we turned off all the lights and snuggled up on the couch to admire our efforts. The tiny white lights were like candle flames in the darkness. We ate pumpkin pie -- the last from my hoard of Libby's cans. Food, warmth and light: we may define those ingredients slightly differently, but that's what Christmas is all about.

There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When we pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It'll nearly be like a pictureprint from Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things we'll remember all through our lives
(Sleigh Ride lyrics)

New ornaments for Christmas 2008

Danish felt/cloth ornaments
from the BMS Christmas Fayre, Nov. 2008

An Oxford don
found in Oxford, Nov. 2008

Kitsch Flamingo in "biker" gear, drinking a margarita
from a gift store in Chrystal Beach, Texas in April, 2008
(battered, but not broken by Hurricane Ike)

We can't keep naughty Minstrel out of the Christmas tree!
He is keeping a beady green eye on a Russian icon that my parents
brought back from St. Petersburg a few years ago
and a traditional painted egg that Sigmund
and I bought in Prague in 2001


marja-Leena said...

Lovely post, gorgeous wreath! I so agree about the pagan tradition of Christmas, the bringing in of light in the darkest days of the year! Even if I'm tired, I'm cheered by the gradual decorating of the house. Yesterday I snipped things from the garden for my wreath and pots by the front door...

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee -

The wreath is gorgeous, and I had no idea you were so "crafty".

I love the picture you spin of your decorating traditions. The music really does make a difference, doesn't it?

btw - The flamingo is awesome!

Elizabeth said...

A new banner. Two posts in two days. A wreath.
Yes, this is a very merry season to be enjoyed on all sorts of levels.
I'm rather inclined to go with the pagan one.
See my little pagan-ish book.

Your wreath is most elegant and your new decorations a delight.

Bee said...

Marja-Leena - Oh, do tell what sort of things you put in your wreath! Now that I've broken through the wreath barrier, I may do the same myself next year.

BSR - The funny thing is that I'm not crafty or handy at all! Truly. Oh yes, the music sets the mood. You've got have the music. (Did you read Willow's post? So funny.)
I'm so glad that you appreciate my flamingo! He is a bit "out there," but hey, everyone is welcome at Xmas!

Elizabeth - Pagan, definitely. We should always warm our hands by the fire if we are able to.

Cindy said...

Bee ~ I love your new header, your wreath, and I identify completely with your tree decorating style. The majority of my ornaments are from childhood, homemade (by myself and others), or souvenirs from traveling. Decorating the tree is like Christmas itself, when I get to see my beloved ornaments and remember exactly how I came by them.

willow said...

I can't wait to put the tree up tomorrow! And you have some of my same ornaments! I have the little wooden carved girl and also the egg! WT has been on numerous trips to the Czech Republic and Russia and brought them back from his travels.

I am inclined to winteriness and am somehow in my element with ice and snow. It's 17 degrees here in Central Ohio and I am happy as a lark!

willow said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention how beautiful your wreath is! I am very impressed. :^)

Kate said...

What a nice surprise, your "new" blog. I like it a lot. (So profound, eh?)
School does, indeed, have me snowed under. In addition to grading that seems never to end, and professional development courses and preparing to work on my master's AND preparing for the holidays AND having a missing-in-action husband (his travel schedule SUCKS ... again, profundity! ... Methinks I am around 12 year old children far too much ..!) AND going through some kind of oddball heartburn-all-the-time situation ... Well, aarrghhaarrgghhaarrgghh. Sigh. More aarrgghh.
I will pen a special thank you tomorrow and get it in the post ... I've much to say!
*Your wreath is splendid!
Enjoy your weekend, dear friend.

Emily @ Treetops said...

Your stunning wreath looks great against your door and the little red pears look gorgeous.

Your wreath, your tree, you are well on your way to the Big Day!

Bee said...

Cindy - Oh, another Christmas magpie! Do please share some photos of some of your ornaments.

Willow - I will think of you "decking your halls" today. When it is winter, do you actually like to be outside? Or do you just love the coziness of being inside? Thank you for the kind words about my wreath. I hope that it holds up for Xmas.

Kate - Happy, happy to hear from you! I miss you being on your summer break and having more free time for frivolity. Good luck down the semester's home stretch.

Emily - Thanks! :) (Welcome to the blogosphere.)

Bitty said...

When I arrived, I actually gasped at the sight of the lover-ly header. (Isn't that a photo of a wallpapered wall? Is it your wall?)

And the wreath is stunning...and the post...

I hear sleigh bells jinglin'. Ring-ting-tingl'n, too.

(About the Libby's cans. I assume you can't get them there. This sounds almost tragic, like something that might have happened to the Ingalls family -- out on the prairie in the deep of winter and down to their last can of pumpkin!!! Could I ship you some more? Write me: mollymoo at hotmail dot com)

Alyson (New England Living) said...

I love a hodge-podge tree too! I'm SO with you on that one. Although, in this house the lights must be colored. I resisted forever, but the kids talked me into it a few years ago and now they'll never let me go back.

I'm so proud of you for adding pics! I love your ornaments and I LOVE your wreath. If I lived anywhere near you, I'd insist on a lesson. You should be very proud of yourself!

Sarah Laurence said...

Wow! Nice blog and house make-over for the holidays. Decorating on 2 fronts! The Oxford don ornament made me laugh. I do like your wreath. Will you keep it all up until 12th night? I fear if we did that now it wouldn't last. I'm off to do some bookstore shopping.

k said...

bee!!!!!!! i've missed you so much! thanks for your recent comment & good wishes. i will catch up on your blog soon. gorgeous wreath!!!!!

Bee said...

Bitty - Yes indeed; it is wallpaper, and the very wallpaper that I look at when I type. (I will do a post about my little garret study someday.)

It's so funny about the pumpkin. One of the grocery stores used to carry it, but they decided to "suspend" sales in October. (I bought the last four cans and have used them all. Somehow, knowing that we couldn't get any more pumpkin made us crave pumpkin pie.) You are the kindest and dearest to offer to send me some, but the cost of the postage would give me a conniption fit. I'm sure that I can find it somewhere in London -- and then I will be sure to stock up!

Alyson - (laughing) Kids are such sticklers for traditions, aren't they? My kids know what they like, too -- and they tend to wear me down.

One of my New Year's resolutions is going to be to take more pictures! You, Sarah, Lucy and others have inspired me.

My husband thought that I had bought the wreath. I'll take that as a compliment!

Sarah - I did think of you when we bought the Oxford don!
And yes, we always keep up our Xmas trimmings until 12th night. I'm not sure how long the wreath will last . . . but I've been assured it will hold up.

K - I'm really glad that I checked in with you today. Lovely to hear from you again.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Oh yes, I love the blog makeover to! Sorry, thought I had mentioned that in my first comment. I must have still been in shock over the pictures. :)

Dick said...

What a beautiful wreath, Bee. And what a plausible party political broadcast for Christmas! Christmas has benign significance for me in only three ways: when I was a child my family did it brilliantly; my kids love it now and most of my bah-humbuggery recedes before their fervour; it's my birthday and the sound of the life-clock ticking away is largely inaudible within the general clamour.

Dave King said...

Your ornaments would make the Scroogiest person welcome Christmas with a glad heart. Wonderful!

bonbon said...

Bee, I have to confess I am one of those who colour co-ordinates the tree and trimmings. But... I did give in and let the chicas add red lights this year.(huge step for an OCD lass) All the multi coloured decs and kid creations are on our mini tree and garlands. I still have the wooden tree puzzle I won at B.B's Xmas Eve gathering Dec 93. Minstrel looks like he is waiting to pounce. Raven and Amber wreck my tree every night. I spend most mornings collecting broken baubles and shredded tulle. I think they chicas have trained them to destroy all Pottery Barn glitz in the hope of replacing it with home spun decorations. I have kept every single popsicle, glittery, snowflake the chicas made so I am not without heart or sentiment. Still the allure of Pottery Barn/ Pier One/ Crate & Barrel bling holds an allure I for one can not resist. Good idea adding your study wallpaper.

Laurie said...

You are so talented, both as a writer and a wreath maker. :)

Debski Beat said...

Nice wallpaper, nice wreath.

I'll be in Wholefoods next week, they claim to stock pumpkin puree, do you want me a get a few tins for you and keep with me until we see each other ? Think Byzantine !

Bee said...

Alyson - Thanks! We were in a very picturesque Cotswold town yesterday and my family teased me for taking so many pictures. (Am I morphing into a picture-taker?)

Dick - Only plausible? There is something rather mythic about being born on the 25th, I think.

Dave King - Oh, thank you!

Bon Bon - I know that you like a coordinated tree! What is your theme this year? (Aren't cats little demons when it comes to tree scaling?)

Laurie - Thanks for visiting! Did you like my Gulf Coast flamingo?

Debski - I've missed you. Yes, please, to pumpkin. Will focus on the Byzantine . . . adding a little gold-leaf to my birthday this year.

Anne said...

I love it! Your wreath is beautiful. I'm with you on tree decorations: lots of different decorations with simple white lights, and no theme to any of the ornaments except sentimentality. I adore your new Danish cloth people, and I hope that your icon and egg don't fall prey to Minstrel's mischief! We had a tree last year, and the cats didn't know what to make of it. I think this year they might be a bit bolder, so fragile ornaments are probably out of the question--a shame, because I love crystal icicles and antique blown glass ornaments.

Here's hoping that the cold and darkness aren't getting you down! A lit tree never fails to lift my spirits; I hope your tree is keeping you in good cheer.

Bee said...

Anne - It's funny, but the minute all of the Christmas prep gets going I actually enjoy the cold and the dark, early nights. Once January is here, though, forget about it.

Minstrel was so funny in that tree! I have to pick up the ornaments every morning, but he is getting a bit more clever about it. (We don't have too many breakable ones, as they've already been broken.)

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

That is a beautiful wreath! I am certain it smells wonderfully cheery.

I love having our tree up so early. You are right, all the things you said, but especially the cheery Christmas lights on these dark, dark wintry days.

I am already mentally dividing up our ornaments... "This will be for Roxi one day, this one we'll keep..."

PS I am so loving these sparkling, frosty mornings! I can forgive winter if we can have sunny and frosty mornings every day(but not too terribly icy or too snowy).

PPS Love your new look! I meant to tell you that I adored your wallpaper when I saw it last summer, but I got distracted. It is so lovely.

Bee said...

JAPRA - Me, too! Even though I hate being cold, I'm really enjoying the frosty wintriness at the moment.

Thanks, too, for mentioning my new header. I like the fact that I look at it while I'm typing, and you like at it while you're reading!

david mcmahon said...

That's an amazing wreath!