Monday, December 17, 2012

The Spirit

I was feeling very bah-humbugish coming out of this year’s Thanksgiving weekend and was not thinking pleasant Christmas thoughts about the gift giving guilt trip conspiracy run by the marketing racket, the decorating, and the whole thing in general. Skipping it all together was a dim thought running through my head. But, being the logistical person I am, I figured that last week was the best time to find and raise the Christmas tree so as to avoid rushing it later. Although it did seem that I just put last year's tree out and put away ornaments, already it was time to do it over again.

Last year we had cut our tree from our friend Ray’s acreage by the interstate, an overgrown piece of land with no particular purpose yet, other that growing cedar trees of various sizes and ages. We had cut a huge tree last year, wrestled it into place and decorated it from the balcony above the living room. It was nice but too big really and so we went on our search for this year’s tannenbaum, with that thought in mind. 

We found a nicely shaped one, and Mark got the saw out and cut it down. It was when we put it in the back of the pick up truck that we realized, that once again, we had misjudged our prey, and then some. Mark estimated it to be about sixteen feet tall and maybe six feet in diameter. Oh well. We got it in the house and secured it with fishing line to the railing above it so as not to find it unceremoniously draped across the piano one December morning.

Decorated partly by reaching out from a ladder, it stands now quietly lit up with tiny lights and with ornaments and decorations, some, older than my children, all memory laden from their many years of service on former trees. There is the hand made sequined ball that my grandmother made a half a century or so ago, various dough ornaments (that I made back in the day where I seemed to have had time to do such things) of Big Bird, a rather well endowed curly headed angel, the Count, and several horses and ginger bread guys. 

There are two sterling snow flakes that were given to me when I was nine or so by my aunt’s boss. They are a bit tarnished and dinged from the years but are still holding their places well, and they remind me of the sweet man who gave them to me. There are little picture frames from my daughters’ kindergarten pictures, smiling happy faces from their youth. To say our tree is eclectic in its style is an understatement. In a sort of controlled chaos nothing matches, nothing seems to have any connection, and yet it does.  All of these little treasures tie the memories of Christmases past to the present, and keep the hope of future ones out in front of us. Many an hour have I sat under the lights of our tree, dreaming, wishing, hoping for the things I had asked Santa for, hoping that I had been good enough to get presents and not lumps of coal. I vividly remember asking for one each year, but never got the pony with a big red bow that I wanted. 
I don’t remember my first Christmas, and the memories of my learning to anticipate its arrival is sort of fuzzy, but a few things are indelibly etched. Early memory has me stringing popcorn into endless lines to wrap a tree in, making chains out of construction paper to decorate with, standing in long lines to talk to Santa and not being terribly comfortable sitting in a man’s lap who I didn’t know and who I was suspicious of about his wearing a beard and makeup, my first attempts at buying other family members gifts, learning the songs of the season, being a fly on the wall at my parents’ lavish Christmas parties peeking to see what the grown ups were doing, and trying to find the sleigh and the reindeer in the dark night on the way home from my grandmother’s house after dinner and gifts on Christmas eve. And I very fondly remember my first cowgirl outfit that my grandmother made for me for one Christmas.

In the beginning, we lived in a very small ranch style house, think very early Mad Men, and there was no room for a fireplace and a subsequent chimney to let Santa down to leave those toys and eat his cookies. So my mother found the next best thing, a printed card board one complete with flames, logs, bricks, and a mantle to thumb tack our stockings into. She taped it to the den wall and we, my brothers and I, sat in front of it for our Christmas card. I knew it wasn’t real but at some level I knew that if I played along, so would the magic, and Santa could eat his cookies and all would work out fine, and it did for many years. Eventually we moved to a house with two working fireplaces and two chimneys, which I thought might double the loot dropped off, but my mother explained that by putting the milk and cookies by the living room hearth, he would get the idea to just use that one, which he regrettably did.

I remember too the day that my brother pulled back the curtain and showed me another side of the "magic" of Christmas and in just a few words and seconds that lasted forever, my childhood version of it all was changed and could never come back. Christmas then became like another Thanksgiving with a bit of gifting going in to it, but that was all. A time for seeing how many relatives one could travel to see in the shortest amount of time, and how many mouthfuls of turkey and ham could one person endure in a day. Finally our kids came along and there was a bit more fun, this time being on the other side of the curtain to supply some of the magic and spirit, and then, once they were older and reality had shown its color to them, Christmas faded back into the just-another-holiday-status. Somewhere in between it all, the stresses of carrying the load of making the stuff happen, finding the perfect gifts, making the meals to feed an army, the whole commercialization of it all began to make me a bit jaded about the whole affair.

There are hard, cold, and cruelly sad realities to everyone's life to varying degrees, but for some reason it all gets amplified at this time of year. Suicides, crimes and murders go up while the lady swinging the bell keeps hoping for change to land in her red pot at the stores to help folks who need it. Her incessant "ding, ding ding" reminds me of those less fortunate than I, and I give what I have to give.

This weekend marked yet another of tragedies in which twenty elementary children and several of their teachers were gunned down in their class rooms, possibly while making pretty sparkly presents for their parents with happy thoughts lingering in their heads. Just how are those parents now,ever going to have a very happy christmas with the associated memory of this event? Their lives have been altered and will never be the same, regardless of the season. There are many people who have a hard time with it all and it can be very difficult to fain happiness in the stresses that wrap us up and engulf us.

For those who do have a more comfortable situation, and perhaps less stress, it can still be hard to find the moment of relaxation until one enters the portal of Christmas Eve, or morning depending on the family observes the ritual. No Christmases are alike but they do share one thing to me, and that is even tho I perpetually go into the season with heels dug in, scowl on my face and mind, bah hum bug is my mantra, and running away from it is a considered option, once in it and all the hard part is done, there is a quiet and a peacefulness that makes the flow of the holidays take their uncharted course. It is this uncharted course that is the closest thing to reliving the childhood naivety of it all. A glass of egg nog, chances to chat with family and friends in a relaxed time frame, a walk in the woods with a small flask to keep warm, bird watching, watching an old movie, a carriage ride with all the bells ringing, anything that is out of the ordinary of our daily lives. It is a day of reprieve from reality, and a chance to feel something closer to magic, again.

This year  for us, will be a bit more special with the addition of the now, one year old, Margaret. It is definitely better to have a young child around to celebrate the nonsense of it all. Who doesn’t like toys and the enthusiasm that a child brings to the season. There is still an element of surprise that is contagious. Of course, this particular Christmas I doubt she will have any anticipation of anything crazy happening like a red suited elf and flying reindeer, but so far she has enjoyed the  sparkly trees and lights and bright ribbons and things. The Santa thing is still waiting for her to grow up a bit, but her presence makes it all better for the rest of us. I totally blame our cutting down a honking big, over sized tree thing on her making us temporarily lose our minds in getting one so large. 'Tis the season for such influences and I’ll admit that I am easily swayed. 

Many years back, my then future husband gave me my first Christmas card from him. On the front was a bald eagle on wing and on the inside he had written, “When this Christmas season becomes a memory, may the memory become a treasure.” That one did, as so many after it did as well. I am lucky, to have many such treasures. It can get hard to feel the spirit of Christmas, especially in light of the real life things that are difficult to bear, but I will try to push the bah humbugs out my head and succumb to the flow of the season so that I can once again feel the magic.