The Secular Light Show

§  As always seems to happen these days, some sourpuss simply had to comment!  §

In early November, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. They noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peaceful remarks, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas and intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly a kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hannukah or Kwaanza, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness?  How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season?  Would he speak a word of  loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

”Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past

§   This year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my tree for the first time, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me.  §

When I was a small child, my father one holiday season brought home  a tiny, thin book titled An Ancient Story of The Christ Child. I have the book still. It is bound in green velveteen, tied at the spine with a gold cord. It is beautifully illustrated, and a yellow Christmas star illuminates each page of text.

I loved the story, which is based on the moral of being kind to strangers, for by doing so, one may, all unaware, entertain saints or angels. But above all, I loved the illustration of the Christmas tree. My child self thought it was the most wonderful Christmas tree I’d ever seen: hung about with polished red apples, and trimmed with popcorn strings and candles.Christmas Story_20191022_0001 (2)

Many years later, as an adult living in South Carolina, I stopped in an ancient dimestore one afternoon near the holidays. There, as if waiting for me, were shining little red apple ornaments, and strings of plastic popcorn and wooden cranberries. I could not resist. For that Christmas and several that followed, my inner child thrilled to a red apple and popcorn decorated Christmas tree.

Eventually, those apple ornaments of painted styrofoam began to deteriorate; the plastic popcorn yellowed; the cranberries lost their color. I reluctantly retired them for more modern decorations.

My lovely red apple tree had not been my first holiday tree, though. As a 19-year-old living in a one-room apartment in the slums, with no money to speak of and only a kitten for company, I’d scrounged to buy a little three-foot tree, tromping through slush and snow in the dark to purchase it. I crafted cheap ornaments from painted plaster of  Paris, using bent paperclips as hangers. That little tree and plaster ornaments served me for several years, cheering me as I returned home evenings to my lonely digs. It apparently cheered my kitten, too, who viewed the small tree as a pine-scented cat toy! Abandoning my evergreen room spray, I bought a concoction called “Cat No!’ and doused the tree liberally with it. It smelled awful, but it did deter Doski’s forays into Christmas tree destruction. (And to this day, I weirdly associate the smell of cat repellant with Christmas.)

In the years that followed, my Christmas trees were garlanded with beads of gold and silver and hung with silver bells, some topped by a star, others by an angel. I enjoyed each new version, always taking photos, especially after the tree had been lit and the gifts piled high at its base. I learned to place a hook in the ceiling and tie the tree to it with nearly-invisible fishing line, so that my cats could not, despite their best efforts, tip it over. I learned, too, to place only unbreakable ornaments within the reach of their sneaky little paws, and never to drape tinsel where it could be swallowed. (One cat, Domino, was nicknamed “Tinsel Butt” for months following the holidays.)

Following my divorce I divested myself of old holiday decorations and their associations with the Christmases of my failed marriage. I  briefly considered the newly-revived “shiny aluminum trees”,  rejecting them after realizing that nothing would ever equal my Grandmother’s aluminum tree, rotating to a color wheel and laden with pink glass ornaments.  Instead, I loaded up on red velveteen ribbon to garland my tree, pairing it with golden ornaments.  Later I traded out the aging velveteen for wide ribbon in Stewart plaid, and acquired a set of tiny brown glass acorn ornaments to scatter amongst the gold. I dispensed with the cat-menacing tinsel and began using realistic plastic icicles.

SnowQueenTree (2)Finally, having grown weary of the red/gold theme and its links to some less-than-joyous Christmas days, I gave away all my decorations and began completely anew with a fresh tree of opalescent ribbons and turquoise and silver ornaments.  The Snow Queen tree, I called it: frosty and icy and different.

No doubt I’ll enjoy my Snow Queen Tree for years to come.  And yet, this year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my  tree for the first time, stepping back to admire my handiwork, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me. A little child—myself—stood staring in wonder at a tall, tall, green tree, garlanded in polished red apples and strings of popcorn and white candles—staring in wonderment and joy, while a visiting angel held her by the hand.

Merry Whatever-Doesn’t-Offend You!  As my blog posts are published on Wednesdays, I will be taking Christmas and New Year’s days off.  My best love and blessings to you and yours for a peaceful, healthy and joyous holiday.  See you the first week of 2020! 

Lopsided No More

§   On December 12, 2018, I published a blog post about my lopsided Christmas tree. Well, much like Star Wars, the saga continues…  §

I hit the Lopsided Tree with my car again.

Damn teeny one-car garage.

Damn teeny-tiny Christmas tree boxes that the disassembled tree never, never ever, fits back into after the season is over.

The Lopsided Tree was parked in a corner of my garage, fully assembled but with branches compacted and wound about with twine to keep them in place. And, yes, the duct-taped-and-tied-on-with-ribbon top branch was still in place, lopsided as all get-out, but appealing and cute.

But at some point during the summer months, the tree must have fallen over as I exited the garage, bent on some errand. Bent, indeed! For I returned and, easing into my narrow, short, not-SUV-ready garage, I failed to stop in time before cruising over the tumbled tree.

Ooops.

This time it was not the injured top branch which bore the brunt of the damage. Instead, several of the umbrella branches—the quick-set type which just open into place–crunched under the car tires. They were loose and floppy and quite obviously irreparable.  Examining the damage, I sighed, gave the lopsided tree the last rites, pushed it upright back into its corner, and made space in my budget to begin saving toward a replacement tree.

And so it came to pass that late October  (yeah, I know, it wasn’t even Halloween yet, but the Christmas displays were already prominent in all the stores) found me on the hunt for a new Christmas tree. After several disappointing false starts, I ventured far down the road to a home goods store where I had in the past experienced great luck in finding the obscure things I wanted. It was there I discovered my new little tree: much shorter than the lopsided tree, but prelit and with the soft, fluffy branches the manufacturers like to call “cashmere”.  I lifted the compact box (the box into which the tree, next January, was sure to never again fit!) into my cart.

But in the months since I had inadvertently destroyed the lopsided tree, I’d been giving the whole “Christmas decorating” matter some serious thought.  Two years previously I’d simplified much of my Christmas décor.  Now I realized that I wanted a completely different tree.  What, I pondered, what could I do differently? And why was this so important to me?

I love Christmas. I always have. I love the old, familiar carols just as much as the new songs that breathe life into the season. I love choosing presents, finding that just-right gift; I love wrapping them while sipping mulled cider. I love the scents of pine and the glimmer of candle flame. But in recent years, I’d found  that decorating my tree felt more like a chore than a pleasure. Why? I needed to know why.

After much thought, I realized that my annual tree theme of bright red or plaid ribbons and golden ornaments felt stale and weary.  I’d chosen that color scheme when trying something different just after my divorce. And beloved though some of my ornaments were, they’d watched over many a not-terribly-happy Christmas day.  (The year when, having eaten the lovely Christmas lunch I’d prepared, everyone bailed without so much as carrying a dirty plate to the kitchen, leaving me all alone to a tearful afternoon of  clearing up the mess; the year when a beloved relative had fallen into a coma on Christmas day, and I, having gone to keep the family company, had gotten lost in the dark on the way home, terrified but unable to summon assistance because I’d forgotten my cell phone; the Christmas when another relative, while enjoying the special dinner I’d worked so hard to cook, had mocked my aging nativity figurines…) There was, I concluded, a lot of accumulated negative energy infiltrating my Christmas décor.

So I began sorting through the boxes of decorations, keeping only a few of those most deeply precious. I’d already refurbished my disparaged nativity figurines (see Repainting the Nativity, 01/16/19).img_20190115_110047196 (2) I bundled up ornaments and garland and donated them to a charity thrift shop.

Now, with my new, non-lopsided tree in the cart, I searched for equally new decorations, fresh and free of negative associations. SnowQueenTree (2)Brilliant new colors: turquoise and silver and opalescent white. A Christmas tree unlike anything I’d done previously.

As I am Vintage, I may find myself, sooner than I like, downsizing to a “Not Quite Giving Up on Christmas” tabletop tree. And I will always recall with pleasure the many Christmas trees I have decorated with a fair degree of artistry and enjoyment.

But despite having moved on, I will always remember that quirky Lopsided Tree.

Repainting the Nativity

Following the most recent holiday season, I’ve spent weeks working to refurbish my small nativity scene.  This grouping—just the three main figures—is nearly 25 years old. I purchased the expensive set from a charity-oriented catalog, spending money that I didn’t really have, because I was taken with the unusual grouping. Unlike traditional displays, the child in my tiny nativity scene is cradled in his mother’s arms, while she sits encircled within the loving touch of her husband.

Despite their cost, the statues I received were formed of cheap plastic, their clothing created by cloth that was probably dipped into some mild hardener, such as white glue, and then draped. The faces were surprisingly detailed and well-sculpted, but because they were created in an Asian country, the skin tones and eyes were representative more of their origins than those of a family from the Mideast. But I appreciated my little set especially for that very reason; it seemed to me to be more universally  inclusive. The muted, uneven colors of the cloth, and its rough texture, correctly represented a family in exodus, travelling in poverty.

One of my own family members, though, found my nativity set comical. A sad person who usually tried to build herself up by cutting others down, her preferred method of criticism was mockery. And so it happened during one holiday season several years ago that she sat at my Christmas dinner table, laughingly examining the figurines where they perched, surrounded in holly garland, on the pass-through to the kitchen (to keep them safe from my cats, who regarded the Baby as a hockey puck). My relative made scathing remarks about St. Joseph’s “sick-looking” face, and the fading colors and battered cloth covering the statues. Where on earth, she demanded, had I found such a pathetic  little display?

Respecting both the day and her status as a family member, I forbore to answer in kind, replying only that my  nativity set had been created in an impoverished country. I neglected to mention how much I had actually paid for it, but explained that the proceeds from sales went largely to people who desperately needed the money. I let the matter rest there.

But I felt stung. I loved my little nativity scene, but I had to admit that it was true: the statues were beginning to show their age. So that January I set about repainting the figurines. I carefully changed their facial tones to accurately represent desert dwellers, and altered their clothing to colors that, while slightly more traditional, were still faithful to the era represented. The smooth acrylic paint restored the cloth to stiffness and luster. I was pleased with the results.

Years again passed, and during this most recent holiday season, I re-examined my nativity set. The colors painted a decade ago had not faded (as had the sting of those long ago critical comments); instead, they had darkened.  holy family loves cats Joseph’s shepherd’s crook had been stolen and used for another hockey game by my ever-marauding cats. The tiny statues no longer quite pleased me, I realized. I made up my mind to refurbish the set once more.

But this time, as I brought out paints and brushes in January, I approached my nativity scene with a different idea in mind. I would not be adding tints to represent a family of immigrants in poverty. Instead, I would be painting them as the sacred souls that they were, not just in Christian legend, but in countless myths and legends of a Sacred Birth from all the eras and all the countries of the world.

Finally finished (I’m not a particularly good artist, and painting comes hard to me), the seated figure of the Divine Mother wears a scarf of silver, touched with opalescent paint. The guardian figure of her husband, standing near her and encircling her and the Child, is partially cloaked in gold—gold, for the nobility of a man who gave up everything: home and family and livelihood, to fly into hiding in Egypt—and all for a child that was not even his. And the Divine Child is swaddled in a shining blanket bespattered with  minute stars.  img_20190115_110047196 (2)

Refurbishing my aging nativity scene has been a careful, thoughtful effort. I seriously debated before finally adding haloes to the figurines, created of gold and stars. It was the finishing touch.

img_20190115_110150240But an acquaintance dropped by one recent afternoon as I was fitting the small, painted twig, shaped like a Scottish thumb stick (a type of walking stick), into Joseph’s tiny hand.

She examined my work with raised eyebrows. It was obvious she thought little of my small, shining saints.  “That doesn’t look anything like a shepherd’s crook,” she at last complained.

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t Christmas day, and she wasn’t a relative! Shooting her as withering a look as my face was capable of producing, I retorted decisively, He wasn’t a shepherd. He was a carpenter.”

No one was ever going to criticize my noble St. Joseph, not ever again.

Taking Down the Christmas Once More

(This post first appeared on January 2, 2017.  It now appears with pertinent edits.)

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The cheerful Yule placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The colorful holiday cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the storage boxes for ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there. I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look once more at enclosed photographs; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone who is now gone, or signed with the names of pets who have passed on–as I, in fact, did, during this most recent Christmas season. Then, and only then, will I recycle the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into a corner of the garage, where, I hope, it will not topple over this year! Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments. Most Precious Ornaments. Angel. Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by my Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors. Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.

The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.

Only At the Holidays

I’ve made my own Christmas cards for nearly three decades now, each year choosing a special photograph or a theme as my holiday greeting to family and friends. At the time I began creating personal cards, the only way to do so involved bringing a printed picture to a photo shop and making a selection from a very limited variety of card designs.  But just a few years after I began sending photo cards, color photocopies became affordable.  Delighted with the new opportunity, that holiday season I had my young daughter draw a picture of  our family at Christmas—Mom, Dad, herself and three cats–added a greeting, and had copies made to send out for the holiday.

Not long after that, I bought our first home computer, which came with a wonderful publishing software called Picture It!  (which, I must sadly report, has gone the way of the dodo, but it was a fantastic software).  From that point on, my holiday cards became more professional, more personal, and involved considerably more effort—sometimes hours of work, in fact.  It didn’t matter; I  thoroughly enjoyed creating my special greeting cards.  I even created a succession of logos for the back of the cards, updating our trademark as family circumstances changed. Logo for Yule

But, just like the software, eventually my state-of-the-art Moo Cow computer—fondly named Hal, after the evil genius computer from 2001–became a venerable antique.  Nevertheless, I kept the old dinosaur hanging around, solely due to that publishing software.   Until Hal went permanently to the blue screen of death, I booted him up once yearly to create my Christmas cards.

In the years since, never having found an inexpensive software with the versatility and functionality of the old Picture It! , I’ve been forced to create my cards using just one side of the standard piece of paper.  They don’t please me nearly as much, but I’ve still enjoyed making them.  And my family and friends assure me they enjoy the special greeting cards and look forward each year to seeing what I’ve come up with.  Some tell me that they even keep each of my cards, while tossing “store bought” ones in the recycle bin at the close of each holiday season.

Yet I have one upsetting memory connected with my personal greeting cards and, each year as I sit down to my annual ritual of creating my special holiday greetings, I recall it.  And it still bothers me.

It was back in the old “photo card” era. Someone, knowing my love of all things Christmas, had given me a giant stuffed Santa.  Reindeer being unavailable, I’d perched Stuffed Santa on my daughter’s old red rocking horse, posed him by the Christmas tree, and snapped a photo, which I used the following year for my holiday cards.

I thought the cards were cheerful and whimsical—bright greens and reds, Santa and the tree, the silly rocking horse instead of a reindeer. But it seemed not everyone felt that way about my choice, for a month or two after the holiday, as I had dinner with a group of friends, something was said that reminded two of them of my annual card, and they began to ridicule it…right in front of me.  Perhaps unthinkingly, or just uncaringly, they made mocking remarks to each other about the greeting card as I sat there, listening and slightly humiliated.

I said nothing; what was there to say? They didn’t appreciate my creative effort. That was their privilege.  But was there any need, I asked myself silently, for them to have humbled me in front of our other friends by scornful remarks?

Gauguin is said to have wept over disparagement of his paintings by art critics who themselves couldn’t have painted a cow barn. And while I hardly compared myself to a great artist, my little yearly creative expression was satisfying, and brought me joy each holiday season…and I felt like crying  to hear it belittled.

I might have let that unpleasant experience put me off creating my holiday cards, but I chose not to. I’ve continued to create greeting cards, as I said, for decades.  And each year as I sit down at my computer and await the magic of inspiration to strike, I recall the casual cruelty of two former friends.  Then I smile and remind myself that the spirit of the season—true loving kindness—should continue not just until the last greeting card is tossed out with the wrapping paper, but throughout the year.

Taking Down the Christmas

2017 Christmas Treet

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The bright red placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The cheerful Christmas cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the boxes of ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there.  I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look at the photographs enclosed; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone beloved who is now gone.  Then, and only then, will I discard the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into the garage. Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments.  Most Precious Ornaments.  Angel.  Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by the Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors.  Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

A few years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice tolerance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my very-Christian acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Christmas, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I was now forced to ask, could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even a rejection of all faith) to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.