Monday, December 15, 2008

Tidings of Joy


A friend recently asked several of us for our Christmas traditions and so I dutifully trotted out our usual pony-show - the tricks we do, the small spectaculars, the material goods that accompany our celebration:

· Only one major "Christmas project" - the years we make a gingerbread house then that's it for the baking. Other years the girls have organized a carolling party. One year we made origami stars to decorate the windows. One year we made fudge. One year we made tins of Christmas cookies. One year we made real clam chowder with clams still living in their shells and a big pot of homemade chili (that was our healthy year). But never more than one biggish effort - and sometimes the BIG project is small.

· Another tradition is that we have to walk (or ride the tractor) to get our tree and carry it up the hill to our house (or cut it down from volunteers in the yard). I like our tree to be small enough to be set up on a little table so we can cover the tree stand and the table with bright Christmas fabric. Then all the gifts go underneath the cloth on the little shelf under the table - that way the tree doesn't look bare once the presents are all opened and it helps us keep the gift-aspect less predominant. Of course, the kids prefer TALL TALL trees, and that's where their having to carry it back up the hill comes in handy.

· We try to slip the gifts secretly under the tree. Sometimes I make up poem-clues on the gifts rather than name-tags so the kids don't know which one is theirs.

· We always put up the Nativity sets. I don't believe in collecting multiples but somehow (!) I have a plain white porcelain set like the one we had in my childhood and another terracotta set made by a man in Venezuela with such human expressions on the faces. My in-laws gave the children an unbreakable one of their own which the kids always put on the hearth where they can hide the angels in the basket of pinecones, moving the animals and shepherds and wise men around the huddle of Baby Jesus, his mother Mary and Joseph.

· We bring out the Christmas picture books that have been put away all year with the ornaments - even the girls (nearly grown) still like to read these - especially the Richard Scarry Little Bear's scratch-and-sniff Scents of Christmas book and Tolkien's Father Christmas letters (which he wrote for his own children) and a pop-up Natvity. I'll often catch them looking through the pictures in the nativity books. We also like our advent calendar: a set of little tree ornaments/ storybooks on golden loops of thread that tell one tiny part of the nativity story each night.

· Christmas Eve day the house must be Christmas-cleaned (which is the children's best gift to me) When they were small we told them Santa doesn't deliver to cluttered houses where there is obviously no place for new toys - "and that's true," says my son, reading over my shoulder.

· On Christmas Eve we always have a simple dinner - some kind of soup usually and bread. Then we all sit in the front room (sometimes we have a fire, but usually just a few candles) and sing Christmas carols, then my husband reads the story of the birth of Christ from Luke and the visit of the three wisemen from Matthew, we sing one more song (usually "Silent Night") and then hang up the red-and-green granny-square stockings my mom crocheted when we were first married and then I did my best to continue for each of our children when they were born (or a few years later . . . ).

· In the morning no one goes into the front room without everyone else - the kids come bounce on our bed until everyone is gathered and then their Dad goes out to check that Santa really has come and to turn on the tree lights and some Christmas music. I usually have the kids eat breakfast in my bedroom first - something like muffins or granola or croissants and hot chocolate. Then the kids line up, youngest to oldest, with their eyes closed, and we all go out to the tree together. The kids examine their stockings (which are their only gift from Santa) - there's always a chocolate orange, a candy cane, gummies, chocolate coins and nuts, an apple, a banana and a satsuma orange, plus a few individual surprises and then things like lip balm and flavored dental floss and hot cocoa packets and Dinosaur Egg instant oatmeal packets. Santa also always gives stationery and stamps for thank-you notes.

· The stockings always take a surprisingly long time, then each child gets an empty laundry basket to keep their stocking stuff and other gifts contained. And we open a couple of paper grocery bags in preparation for the discarded wrappings. (I've learned the wisdom of making the tidying-up an expected part of the Christmas rituals so I'm not left alone with the mess at the end.)

· We like to linger over the gift-opening as long as possible (to make the most of it - which would certainly drive some people batty, but I think it gives us time to think about each giver and the time they took to choose and send or make gifts for us - also this makes a few presents go a LONG way). So we only open one gift at a time. The youngest picks the first gift - it has to be for someone else - and carries it over to the recipient, we all ooh and ah appropriately, hugs and kisses between recipient and giver - and then the next oldest chooses a gift. There's an excitement about choosing the gift, watching others open the gifts you've put under the tree, seeing what others are giving, as well as opening your own. One of the girls always makes a batch of No-Bake cookies for their Dad as their gift - sometimes there's a treasure hunt with clues to find the cookies.

· Finally when the gifts are all opened, the kids sit at the table and write thank-you notes and address & stamp the envelopes. (Except I think we need to add the tradition of walking down and mailing the notes so they don't end up in the kitchen drawer until after the 4th of July!)

· Then we eat fruit and nuts from our stockings, cereal, yogurt, etc. And there's kippered herring and smoked salmon set out with cream cheese and bagels. Some of us curl up with a new book. Some of us may take a nap. My husband usually starts a fire in the fireplace. Some of us go outside and play - if there's snow especially. The kids sometimes play board games and try out new toys. We call our faraway family members on the phone. If we have a good light-hearted DVD we may watch that in the evening. All day we just do whatever we want to do.


And I do like our quiet Christmases. But looking over it, I wish we had more a tradition of service. Like everyone, we do some quiet things for other people - invite people up for dinner who may be lonely, donate boxes of fresh fruit or canned goods at the Food Bank, help some of the widows we know put up and take down their Christmas trees. But I wish we did something more useful and immediate . . .

And maybe something more physically adventurous - like snowshoeing - or how about carrying pine logs thither like Good King Wenceslaus?

Or am I letting myself get carried away with the idea of having a Christmas that will impress - well, at least myself?

We were talking over dinner (Bacon Potato Soup, Medieval Forest Brussel Sprouts, baked acorn squash) how we should celebrate Christmas this year: a very strong consensus that we didn't need to do anything more - just to do what we have done. And to celebrate together, quietly, without a crowd.

Last Christmas Eve was the most beautiful for me of any I've ever experienced - I had been slogging through the day, trying to get everyone to do chores and get things tidied up. Getting grouchy.

But then my elder daughter decided to be a light - she offered to make dinner. I found myself stepping back - I helped her, working under her direction, chopping onions, running errands, doing whatever she asked. It changed everything. We all cleaned up, bustling around now - even the other two children bustled.

After dinner, the children were the ones to gather us into the front room. I had lit candles at all the windows and on the lid of our upright piano. The children - my young son in particular - had us sing song after song - all the Christmas hymns in the book. And then he chose,"There is a Green Hill Far Away." And then, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

Birth - sacrifice - resurrection. There was the whole story of what Christmas is, sung in the thin silvery voice of my seven-year-old son.

What peace! And if I had been functioning in Supermommy mode I would never have seen my children's grace and strength. What a gift to feel I had done - enough - at least for that particular evening. And that it wasn't just me making good things happen.

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