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.
Willow 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
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