December 21st, 2012
Today I was out walking with a friend, and we were talking about the Dark Days of winter, the time between the end of Daylight Savings Time and the Winter Solstice. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s only about six weeks of darkness, and then the light comes back,” she said. “Only” six weeks of darkness. Time attenuates in the winter, I think, or during difficult times, when days are short and nights seem endless. No wonder we speak of the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
For the last several years I have actually grown to like this time of year, perverse as it seems to most of my friends. I rarely confess this, but I hate summer. For me, summer is too hot, too busy, and I feel like I can’t stop “doing” until the sun goes down, which makes for long, frantic days. In these Dark Times, I can stop at five o’clock, when the light fades and the calm evening comes on, and draw a hot bath, or snuggle up with my dog Nellie, and enjoy the long, cozy evening.
I feel the ancient rhythm of the seasons at this time of year. I feel like a cavewoman, going inside, drumming and praying for the return of the Sun, wrapping myself in animal furs and curling up with my tribe for the long sleep of winter. There is a sweet melancholy to the approach of winter, a cozy sadness, a reflective warmth.
And then of course, there’s Christmas in the modern world. Christmas, a time of joy for some of us, a time of redemption, and blessings, and perhaps, gifts. For some of us, it’s a time to enjoy the change of seasons, the Solstice, the Inner Light. And of course, there are always those of us who simply try to ignore that fact that it’s “The Holiday Season,” and grump around, complaining about how commercial everything is. Personally, I’ll take any excuse to celebrate.
My father hated Christmas. His parents, even though they were wealthy, never gave him toys. He said that each year he would dig out his one and only toy, a big yellow dump truck, and wrap it up and put it under the tree so he would at least have one fun thing to open on Christmas morning. Perhaps to compensate for his own lousy childhood Christmases, my father made a huge deal of it when we were kids. Our house was lavishly decorated by my mother, and Christmas morning always brought a giant pile of gifts under the tree that took hours to open. We celebrated for days, and with large quantities of alcohol. There was a big Christmas Eve party at my Aunt Anne’s, followed by Midnight Mass, then Christmas Day at my Aunt Mel’s, with dozens of our Irish Catholic clan in attendance. By New Year’s Day, we were all exhausted.
As an adult, I remade Christmas in my own fashion, with new traditions and rituals, celebrating the end of one year, one season, and the beginning of another. I built a loving network of friends and family, and each year my Christmas card list grew longer and longer. It seemed like “The Holiday Season” grew longer and longer as well, and took longer to prepare.
At fifty years old, I decided it was time to learn to bake cookies, so I added that to my holiday repertoire. (My mother didn’t bake, and my only living grandmother was a jet-setter who lived in Pebble Beach in the winter, not exactly the cookie-baking type.) I strung lights, I baked cookies, sent a long, detailed Holiday Letter, with pictures, to my ever-growing list, shopped for the “perfect” presents for everyone, bought tickets for holiday chorale concerts and plays and saw the Nutcracker more times that I can count. It was fun, it was my own Holiday Season, without much alcohol around, and no Family Drama. And by New Year’s Day, I was exhausted.
Then came the Fire, and Christmas burned up with everything else. By that time, boxes marked “Holidays” took up most of the storage closet in the garage. The ornaments, the creche my mother gave me, the funny little metal snowmen that went on the front steps, the little fake tree, the tree stand, the lights, the boxes and boxes of decorations, went Poof! up in smoke. After the fire, as my brave friends and I dug through the ashes, we found bits and pieces of Christmas, scattered throughout the ruins of the house, but nothing intact. We handled these broken bits with rubber gloves, took pictures for the insurance claim, and then dumped them all in the dumpster, off to the Haz-Mat landfill. So much for the family treasures, lovingly and carefully packed up each January. A spark, a flame, some wind and wildfire, and it all goes away.
My first Christmas after the fire, I went to the Goodwill and bought some strands of lights that were in a bin, and a box of old wooden snowflakes, covered with glitter. I went home and found a box of push pins, and stuck the snowflakes and the lights up around the little cottage. “There,” I thought, “I’m done decorating.” Then a few hours later, the UPS guy showed up at my door with a huge box, and when I opened it I pulled out a gorgeous live tree, beautifully decorated with lights and hearts and ribbons, courtesy of my cousin Bridget. I had not spoken to Bridget or seen her for over twenty years, and she sent me that lovely tree, and I wept at the sight of it. Such gracious generosity from a long-lost cousin.
Later that night I sat down at my laptop to write my annual Holiday Letter, and I stared at the blank screen for ages. At one point, my friend Linda called and asked me what I was doing. “I’m trying to write my annual letter,” I said, ” But I can’t think of what to say.” She laughed and said, “Are you KIDDING me? What are you going to write - ‘Hello Friends, This has been rather an eventful year?’”
I said, “How about this – ‘Dear Friends. Shit happens. Happy Holidays from Me and Nellie,’ and we both laughed until we could hardly breathe. When we settled down, Linda said, “Seriously, you know you don’t actually have to do Christmas this year, right? Just take care of yourself.” I said, “Oh, okay.” And so I didn’t write my Holiday Letter, or bake, or buy presents, or do Christmas that year. Or last year, really, not much.
This year I realize I don’t know what I want to do for the Holidays any more. I don’t think I’ll buy any cards or do any baking, and I’m not sure I’ll even give gifts, something I used to love doing. I don’t think I’ll get a tree this year, which would be a first.
It’s not that I’m depressed, or want to skip Christmas, far from it. I’m actually enjoying the blank page that is now the holidays. These days, there are no boxes in storage whispering, “Hey, open us up. Write those cards, buy those gifts, time’s a wastin’…” Instead there is a spaciousness, a question mark, an opportunity.
It is two years after the fire, and I am still reinventing myself in so many ways. Tragedies like fire or flood wash away, burn away so much more than “stuff.” They burn away routine, tradition, habit, and like it or not, give you a clean slate, an empty page. I stare at that page tonight, realizing that like everything, it will fill in its own time.
These days I have been quite content enjoying other people’s holiday preparations. Last night I was walking around town and decided to take myself on a spontaneous tour through the neighborhoods and look at the lights. At one point as I walked I thought, “Hey, I don’t have to decorate this year, because everyone else has done it for me! They did all this work, and I just get to enjoy it. What if I just pretend that this whole town is my backyard?” I walked around with that awareness, looking at the lights, the trees, the decorations, and enjoying them as if they were mine. I felt like the whole town and I were connected, that we all shared one big backyard, and our decorations went on and on for blocks.
I walked and walked, and when I got back to the car, I took one last look around and said softly, “Thank you, everyone, for putting up all these lights, for helping me celebrate the season. We are the cavewomen, and the cavemen – you and I – and you are my tribe, and we are all lighting up these Dark Times together.” And I climbed into the car and headed home, humming “Joy to the World,” and smiling.
Wishing you the Happiest of Holiday Seasons,