Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

Solstice. Just before Christmas and our tree is up, shining with lights in the darkness which is profound, this shortest day of the year.

I arose in the darkness and sat with it this morning, kept a close eye on it as it gave way to dawn. I plan to bundle up and walk in the woods today. The day may be overcast—but it will be far from gloomy in there. Close, dim perhaps; but not depressing. The woods at the darkest time of the year feel majestic, full of secrets.

Later I’ll listen to music, maybe even get out my guitar and play. I should bake something too, in the longstanding tradition of my people at Christmas, a rite that I’m certain goes back much further than I can see, beyond my mother and my grandmothers, beyond the women whose names are on the recipes handed down to me: Martha, Diatha, Leah, Opal.

It’s still a mystery, my descent from my ancestors, how my life is linked to so many generations before me, as life itself is a mystery, how the light comes back every year, finds us again and the new year begins. It’s just the Christian calendar, a Chinese-American friend said to me once. She was referring to the millennium, as I recall, and dismissing it as a purely Christian invention, and of course she was right—at least, about the year 2000. But the Christian calendar is overlaid on something more ancient, the Gregorian on the Julian, both of them working from the sun and starting the new year soon after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice—observed and celebrated in pre-Christian times. I think of the standing pillars of Stonehenge, arranged to frame the arc of the sun on its shortest journey of the year and constructed at least 4,000 years ago. During the middle ages many western European countries actually started the new year on December 25th, marking the birth of Christ and closer to winter solstice. (When reforming the calendar and lopping off days to get back into alignment with the sun, Pope Gregory held onto the Roman convention of the New Year beginning on January 1.)

Like the calendar many of the holiday festivities, the decorations and the carols are older than Christianity. Now and then I peek behind the “Christmas” veneer and see my pagan ancestors. Celebrating Yule, for instance—it’s not a Christian festival, but the word’s been co-opted as if it means Christmas. I listen to the carols and ancient voices call out to me, singing about the greenwood as if it’s a very real, specific place; singing of dawn breaking and deer running. They had a lot to say and to sing about, it seems, at this shortest day of the year, even without the addition of a prophet from the middle east.

Some of the Christian lyrics build on the happy spirit of revelry (in fact carols were originally dances) and call out for beneficence, and for understanding among people, and who can argue with or complain of that? Other lyrics simply recount the Christmas story: the star, the kings, the birth of Christ; and often each bit of story is tied to something still green and growing, like holly, that one might find on a winter ramble in the wood.

And I come back to where I began: Today I want to walk in the woods, whether dim or shot through with the rays of the low-sailing sun, where people for thousands of years have felt close to the mystery, the unknowable. The trees that outlive us, the ground we will return to, the bits of green that always survive the frost. The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer.

Our roots are long, long as the shadows this time of year.


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Christmas Eve.

Snow is on the ground. Icicles big as baseball bats hang from the porches of the little houses on Leroy St., and if you come late and the church lot is full and you have to park on the street, you will carefully make your way up the end of someone’s driveway—lit by Christmas lights—and move along the sidewalk as if through a tunnel, flanked by walls of snow.

Inside, there’s a huge tree at the front of the sanctuary, hung with ornaments all in white and gold, all Christian symbols. I don’t think even the grownups know what half of them mean. Ok, we all know the dove is about peace, and the fish has something to do with early Christians, but lots of others just seem vaguely familiar, or not at all. A woman in the congregation painstakingly crafted every one of them, out of Styrofoam and braid and beads. (The tree in the social hall, in the basement, is far less majestic. It’s artificial, white, and has a color wheel turned on it so that it slowly changes: blue, to red, to emerald, to a funky gold. It always has a hypnotic effect on me—I could watch it for hours.)

But back to the sanctuary. The advent wreath’s up front, on a stand. I never remember what the colors mean, I just know the white candle in the center does not get lit ‘til Christmas. I like the purple candles best, and how fat they are: big, round columns that look like they could burn for days. The altar is banked with poinsettias, scores of them. Sometimes our family has paid for a few and takes them home later, but at home they always look spindly and kind of lame to me compared to how they look amassed here—an army, a forest of fiery red flowers.

There are a lot of people packed into the sanctuary, some of whom we see only once a year. But my young brain doesn’t think about this much, or judge it. It’s exciting, the crush of people, all dressed in their holiday best. Men in waistcoats, and holiday ties; women in jewel colors, ruffles, hairspray, clip earrings. One year our mom sews long skirts for my sister and me. (Mine is deep green velvet. I think Linda’s was port.)

The sanctuary feels warm with the press of all these people, and the darkness at the windows along the sides makes the effect even more cozy. Crammed into the pews, a handful of kids always drop their votive glasses, and they clink as they roll around on the floor. “Good God, it sounds like a bar in here,” my dad always says, and we all laugh.

Every year the service begins with our best musicians, the T. family, playing “Gesu Bambino,” “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella” on alternate years. Tom’s sweet violin cuts through the sanctuary, supported by his mother’s steady cello and intertwined with his sister’s warm-sounding flute. Already everyone knows that he will play in a professional orchestra one day. I can picture the chairs they sit on, small wooden chairs that usually stay in the storage space behind the choir loft and have “ihs” carved in the back.

The choir assembles in the “narthex,” the space just outside the doorway to the sanctuary. I always think it’s funny that people seem to enjoy using the technical terms for parts of the church—and yet, it fascinates me, too. The T. family has finished playing, picked up their chairs, retreated from in front of the steps to the altar. The organ begins something we all know—because it’s Christmas Eve, and we’ll know all the hymns tonight. There is a sound—how do you describe it? The sound of everyone around me getting to their feet. And as the choir comes down the center aisle in their pale gold robes, we’re all singing. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Even in the robes, I can tell who’s who—and I enjoy this, recognizing that the short woman with the carefully coiffed hair and the gorgeous voice is Mrs. A., and the tall, thin man who bounces a little is Mr. W. They’re familiar, and yet, transformed. Or maybe it’s just that I recognize the fellowship in singing in a choir, symbolized by their robes. I know about singing in a choir, I’ve been doing it here since I was four years old.

And sing is what we will do, for the next hour. Sure, there will be readings from the Gospels, and the minister will address us briefly. He knows he has to keep it short on Christmas Eve—besides, with the votive glasses rolling around, and the occasional baby bursting into voice, how long can he expect to hold the floor?

And we have a lot of carols to sing—so many, that “The First Noel” will only get three of its umpteen verses, and someone’s favorite will get left out—better luck next year. And then the moment comes we’ve all been waiting for, even those who don’t know it.

The ushers come up the aisles and light the candle of the person sitting at the end of every pew, and that person lights the next person’s candle, and that person, the next, until everyone in that crowd of people is holding a burning candle in a glass. The lights are dimmed and the organ, softly now, strikes up “Silent Night,” and we begin to sing the last hymn.

Somewhere around verse three the organ drops out and it’s just us, the multitude, singing in the candlelight, the dark of a winter’s night pressing in at the windows as we sway with the music, not really thinking any more of gifts we’ll open tomorrow, what Santa will leave under the tree, what we’ll have for Christmas dinner, or even the relatives we’ll see. All drops away—as I suppose it must have in churches all over the city, with their own colors of candles, ways to decorate an altar, hymns to the eternal.

How strong a pull has Christmas Eve. When I look back on it, I think I understand better than I ever have that for me, the pull is in the power of uniting, of belonging, of opening our hearts. And of course, singing.

Always, singing.

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O Christmas Tree

Three days until Christmas and I’m about to decorate the tree.

It’s been up for a week with just lights, which gave me time to think about its transformation. It entered our house green and piney-smelling, come lately from a forest, or a field. It was anonymous, one of many, leaning up against the fence with its fellows at the home and garden center.

We brought it in the house and put it upright, an individual singled out to stand before the window. But still it was a new thing, an unfamiliar presence, something of a stranger. It’s started to become part of the room this week, its long, sweeping boughs dressed with lights cheering us morning and evening – but even so the lights are characterless. They could be anyone’s outdated mini-lights.

Now things are about to change. The tree will go from being an evergreen with lights to being our Christmas tree. I’m going to hang it with ornaments I remember from childhood, things we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents. I’ll adorn it with objects that were made for us, over the years – in fact, all the years of our lives – like the yellow plastic bulb on which my dad inked, in his neat engineer’s hand, my name and the year of my first Christmas.

I’ll put on music – a choir, or Vince Guaraldi – and the TV will remain dark and silent. I’m going to pour myself a glass of something, and sip slowly, in between boxes. I’ll lift the ornaments from their nests of paper, out of shoeboxes and old tattered cardboard stamped with “Shiny Brite” and “U.S.A.” I’ll place them carefully so they hang from the boughs; not too thickly, but making sure all those most dear to us find a home – the ice skates Sally’s grandmother made from paper clips and bits of felt; the pale glass heart, fragile as a bird’s egg, that was my mom’s and before her, Aunt Millie’s; the paper mache icicle from my dad’s childhood.

The tree is small – but it will hold all of this for us; and when I look at it, I will feel light. Once again the Christmas tree will come into being, bright with lights, shining with memories.


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Tis the Season

Doreen felt a bit sheepish about being in the discount fashion store the Saturday after Thanksgiving. After all, she’d clucked in disapproval and shook her head, watching on CNN as mobs of shoppers were shown trampling each other, trying to get in the doors of Walmart (and Best Buy, and Victoria’s Secret) on Black Friday. “What’s this country coming to?” she’d complained, out loud – and then realized how old she sounded.

But the weather was suddenly cold, as often happened in November, and although she didn’t have much holiday shopping to do, she did need new gloves. So Saturday morning she headed out to one of the many strip malls that sprawled the length of the main road, growing along the edge of her neighborhood like a kind of mold. The parking lot was crowded; and she drove around a while beneath the lightposts decorated with tinsel candy canes before someone pulled out right in front of her and she got their spot. Inside, the store was busy, although nothing like the images on TV from the day before. She threaded her way around the other shoppers, one of whom was talking loudly into a cell phone while standing in the aisle.

The gloves were near the back of the store and, she was surprised to find, not too badly disarranged. She picked morosely through them, jostled a few times by women pushing carts bearing piles of clothes and the occasional toddler. The leather gloves seemed pricey, but the cheaper models would be hard to drive in: no grips. She deliberated – was it worthwhile to purchase before Christmas, or should she wear her ratty old gloves until the post-holiday sales? Meanwhile the loudspeakers blared Christmas music, some tenor belting his way through “O Holy Night.” She loved most Christmas music – but personally she couldn’t care less if she ever heard O Holy Night again. Especially played over a public address system.

After a detour to a display of bomber hats with fake fur trim, a few of which she tried on, she decided to go. It seemed she lacked the conviction needed to buy anything. Despite the store’s advertising – their slogan was something along the lines of “more for less!” delivered by various svelte young women with toothy white smiles – she wasn’t convinced that anything they had to offer was going to make her instantly more attractive, not to mention happier. She started for the front of the store, feeling like she should have anticipated the pointlessness of the excursion and stayed home.

About halfway to the front doors, she was waylaid by some nice-looking black turtlenecks hanging on a rack. She stopped, just out of curiosity, to see if her size was there, and just then a small girl walked by, wailing. Clearly lost, Doreen thought – the girl’s face was streaked with tears, and her crying had the breathless quality of panic. The girl’s head came not much higher than the elbows on the turtlenecks – of course she could not see beyond the racks of clothes that hemmed them in like the walls of a labyrinth. As Doreen watched, the girl looked up and down the narrow aisles, plugged with women engrossed in sifting through the hanging clothes. They seemed not to notice the distraught girl.

Doreen approached her. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked.

The girl nodded, and her brown ponytail bobbed. She stammered as she tried to catch her breath. “M-m-m-m-y Aunt Liddy,” she said. “She was right here…” Her dark eyes did not make contact with Doreen, but instead she turned a half-circle, still looking for her aunt. She started to wail again – a low sound that seemed both despondent and tired, like she’d been at it for a while.

“Don’t worry,” Doreen said. “We can have her paged.” And then she realized the girl didn’t know what “paged” meant. “Let’s go to the counter and the women who work here can help you find your aunt,” she explained. The girl seemed doubtful, but walked with Doreen to the checkout, her head still swiveling, on the lookout for her missing aunt. Doreen noticed the girl’s boots: shiny black, with a Hello Kitty face emblazoned on the side. How old was she? Six? Maybe seven?

At the checkout counter Doreen flagged down a clerk, who promptly took the situation in hand, telling the girl to stay right there while she paged Aunt Liddy. Doreen was watching from a nearby stack of cashmere sweaters as the aunt arrived: a plump woman with a blond-streaked bob, wearing black yoga pants and a ski jacket. She seemed completely mystified by the girl’s distress. “I was right there,” Doreen heard the woman chide the girl, gently. Sure you were, Doreen thought. Sure you were.

The aunt, now holding the girl’s hand, walked towards the shoe department. Doreen felt beyond done with looking at clothes. Invigorated by the purposeful activity of getting the child reunited with her guardian, she felt released from a trance – a shopping zombie no longer. She walked to the doors – which graciously opened for her, automatically – and went out into the cold, crisp air.

In the car on the way home she didn’t feel particularly bad about leaving the store without new gloves, nor about the gloves she was still wearing, one of which had an embarrassing (and drafty) hole in the index finger. The voices of the Andrews Sisters came on the radio, singing a saucy rendition of “Jingle Bells” festooned with jazz horns and Bing Crosby’s baritone. She found herself thinking of a story her parents used to tell, about their first Christmas together; how their new puppy got into the cardboard nativity scene under the tree and chewed up baby Jesus.

The holidays, she thought, would always get chewed up – at least, a little bit. But it was ok. Even wandering around the sweater aisles, dazed and confused and on a budget, a person might still find a reason to be right where she was.

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