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February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic. It’s not about the presents. I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit. I want to feel it in my bones. I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back. We know something: we still believe in Wonder. The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses. The snowy walk. The lit candle. The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox. When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true. I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood. Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall. I’ve given up a lot. I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one. I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season. I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea. Keep going. Keep practicing. It’s all going to be okay. You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try. You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you. You’re going to learn how to not try. In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens. You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside. So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say: have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.
I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemorrhage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.
I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.
This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a God-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.
I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kids’ race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.
I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. So along with our Santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.
That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.