Silver and Gold

I may be sixty-years old, but I love Christmas just as much as I did when I was a child.  Even though it’s a such a busy time of the year and I sometimes feel tired and stressed,  I still enjoy the shopping, the wrapping, the baking and the decorating.  I look forward to singing “Silent Night” by candlelight at the Christmas Eve service and to opening gifts with my family on Christmas morning.  Despite all the extra demands it brings on my time and energy, Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, and I think it always will be.

IMG_4289Part of the attraction is probably nostalgia.  I am fortunate to have many happy memories of Christmas celebrations when I was a child, which probably explains why I decorate my house and my tree with the glass ornaments, ceramic Santas and other knick-knacks that were so popular when I was growing up.  I think on some level, I’m actually trying to recreate the best of Christmas past.

But life is about nothing if not change, and even at Christmastime, change can be a good thing.  This will be the first year we get to celebrate Christmas with our grandson, and I’m looking forward to it very much.  He’s not quite a year old yet, so he’ll probably be more interested in the empty boxes than in the actual presents he receives, but there’s still something so special about having a little one in the house at Christmas time.

It reminds me of how much my husband and I looked forward to our first Christmas with our first child, and how that year marked the time when our focus shifted from what we wanted for Christmas to how we could provide meaningful celebrations for our own children.  It was so fun to buy gifts for them, and to let them help with the cookies and the decorating.  They even participated in our Christmas giving by choosing some of their own toys to donate to children who weren’t as fortunate.

fullsizeoutput_4d70Later, when they grew up, married and moved into their own houses, we found new traditions to enjoy with our family.  We toured Christmas light displays together and even quaffed a few drinks at a “pop-up Christmas bar.” Now that our family includes a baby,  we skipped the Christmas bar but did take him to a light display at the local zoo and he did just fine.  My son-in-law said that was because the little guy was so bundled up that he couldn’t move and was probably blinking an SOS with his eyelids.   But for whatever reason, he behaved beautifully.

This year, just like every other year, Christmas will be a blend of old and new.  We’ll honor the most treasured of our old traditions, and remember the loved ones who are no longer with us.  And we will also find new ways to celebrate the season, hoping that we’re starting new traditions that will be meaningful for many more years to come.  This Christmas, like every Christmas, will be unique.  And that’s as it should be.

One More Christmas

IMG_2153We were sure that last year would be our dog Lucy’s very last Christmas.  She was fifteen years old, and had survived a couple of serious health issues.  Signs of her aging were obvious: stiffness in her joints, hearing loss, and worst of all, a digestive system that obviously could no longer handle the variety of “food” she still found and insisted on eating.  Lucy had been part of our family for over fourteen years, so our Christmas morning was a little bittersweet as all photographed and video-taped what we thought would be the last time she would ever help us open presents.

Clearly, Lucy had other ideas.  Because Christmas is a week away, and she is still with us.

I’m not sure if it’s her competitive nature (her doggie sister lived to be sixteen and a half, and I think she has every intention of exceeding that goal), or just that she is still enjoys life.  She turned sixteen last October.  Lucy’s hearing is basically gone, her eyes are somewhat cloudy and she can no longer balance on three legs while I trim her nails.  But she still has a healthy appetite, still trots briskly after the occasional squirrel, and still plays with her dog toys now and then.  She can even still chase her tail a little bit when she gets really excited about something,  such as her dinner being served.

I know that eventually my family will be facing a Christmas, and a life, without Lucy.  She won’t be with us forever despite her best efforts.  Time moves on and those we love, both human and otherwise, grow old and die…often before we are ready to let them go. And since Christmas is a time when the influence of the past seems to be stronger than usual, acknowledging that loss can be hard.

My father has been gone for eight years now, and both my mother-in-law and father-in-law have been gone for six years.  And while my husband and I miss them all the time, we miss them especially during the Christmas season, when the memories of the holidays we celebrated together are especially strong.  We didn’t live in the same state so we had to be flexible about when we got together, but they were always a part of our Christmas celebrations.  And Christmas isn’t quite the same without them.

Yet Christmas is still a beautiful season.  It’s a time to treasure the family and friends we still have and to appreciate the new people who join our family and enrich our lives. My mother may be in her late eighties, but she is still with us, and so is her elderly Chihuahua.  My children and their spouses live close by and we are very much looking forward to the arrival of our first grandson in just a few weeks.  Some change is good indeed.

And the fact that Lucy will get at least one more chance to find the special present that Santa Dog left under the tree will just make this Christmas that much sweeter.

Year After Year

I’m a big fan of Christmas traditions.  This is the one time of the year when “doing things the way we’ve always done them” feels not only right, but almost mandatory.  I love trimming my tree with ornaments I’ve had for decades, and I do it while listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas music, just the way my family did when I was a child.  I find it both meaningful and comforting to carry on old family Christmas traditions….most of the time.  But there are a few traditions that I would love to abandon, if only I could.

I could do without the nasty Christmas cold I manage to come down with every year, and just once I’d like the breakfast casserole I make for Christmas morning to turn out the way the recipe promised.  But it never does.  It’s either under-cooked and soggy, or over-cooked and dry, and it always sticks to the baking dish.  Still, my family chokes it down each year and assures me that it tastes just fine, because (of course) that casserole is a Christmas tradition.

IMG_2768But if I could abandon just one of my Christmas traditions, it would be the annual battle to put the lights on my Christmas tree.  I prefer the large, old-fashioned lights that throw out a warm, cozy glow on a dark night, just like the ones my family has always used.  You’d think that putting a few strands of them on the tree would be easy.  But each and every year year, something goes dreadfully wrong when we try to light up our tree.

Last year the Christmas lights I had been using finally wore out and refused to work, so I embarked on a frantic search for replacement lights.  Which every single store I went to seemed to be sold out of.  I even gave the LED lights a try, but after carefully putting them on the tree I realized that while they are indeed bright to look at, they don’t actually light up a room.  Eventually, after much time and effort, I did find some satisfactory lights and was able to spend my December evenings basking in their glow.

This year I had the lights and figured it would take twenty minutes, tops, to string them and then we could hang the ornaments.  I was wrong.  I put the lights on the tree, but then realized there weren’t nearly enough.  So I took them back off, found another strand in our basement and put them all back on again.  Then the strand in the middle of the tree stopped working, so I took those off while my husband went to the store to get some more.  By the time we finally got the tree lit and looking good, the entire afternoon was shot and we decided to go have pizza and hang the stupid ornaments the next day.

But at least the lights are on the tree, and soon I can add the ornaments.  My Nat King Cole CD is still working (I checked), so I think I’m all set.  By this time tomorrow my tree will be fully decorated and I can just relax and enjoy the rest of the season.  Until, of course, I catch my annual Christmas cold….

Christmas Gifts

When my husband and I first got married, buying Christmas presents for each other was easy.  We were young and strapped for cash, so we both had a long list of things that we really wanted and would be happy to find wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning.  I always tried for a variety when purchasing my husband’s gifts, usually settling on something like  new after-shave lotion, a wallet, a flannel shirt and maybe a money clip.  My husband was a firm believer in going with a sure thing, which is why one year I received four wool skirts, purchased from the Bargain Basement of a local department store.  They were the exact same skirt, only in different colors.  And he knew I would like them and they were the right size, because I already had one hanging in my closet.  I actually saw him checking the tag on it one day in early December.

But as the years have gone by, Christmas shopping for each other has become more of a challenge.  My husband now has plenty of clothes, a good supply of after-shave lotion, and there’s only so many years in a row that I can get away with giving a money clip or a wallet. But the problem is that there’s rarely anything new or original on his Christmas list.  He usually asks for a new golf glove, even though he only plays golf about once a year.  Apparently, each time he plays, he manages to lose his glove.

I know he doesn’t have it any easier trying to buy me a gift.  Most of my favorite authors aren’t especially popular and their books are out of print and hard to find.  Since I have reached the age where my body has, how shall I say, both settled and expanded, I usually need to try on any new clothes before buying.  And like my husband, I honestly have all the things I need and most of the things I want.  (Or at least the sort of things that can be wrapped and put under a tree.  The last I checked, world peace, end to animal and child abuse, etc. don’t fit in a gift box.)

img_2121But that’s okay, because with each year that goes by, I find myself even less focused the gift-giving aspect of Christmas.  We will, of course, exchange some gifts with each other and our kids on Christmas morning, and it will be a fun time.  But those aren’t the real Christmas gifts at all.  The real gift was having some friends over for a Christmas celebration, all crammed together in my living room, talking and laughing.  It was having the kids and their spouses for dinner and a rowdy game of bingo, and then meeting them a few nights later for a drink at a festive, if somewhat tacky, pop-up Christmas bar.  And tonight, it will be singing Silent Night in a beautiful sanctuary, lit only by the candles in our hands.  It’s a magical moment that, for me, defines the whole Christmas season.

Christmas shopping may be more difficult these days, but as far as I’m concerned, my Christmas gifts–those moments and memories that I truly treasure–just keep getting better.

Look for the Good

img_3836My husband and I always put up the artificial Christmas tree in our living room on the weekend after Thanksgiving and we usually leave it up through the first week in January.  That means that each year, the tree is in our living room for at least six weeks.  It’s a beautiful tree, lit with old-fashioned bulb lights (I finally found a few sets that work) and loaded with antique ornaments.  Still, almost every day I find it necessary to make some small adjustment:  an ornament moved to a “better” spot, a green light swapped for a red, a branch tweaked an inch or so to the left.  Because no matter how pretty my Christmas tree may be, whenever I look at it, I somehow manage to see some small imperfection that needs to be “fixed.”

Sadly, my habit of focusing on the negative extends far beyond Christmas decorating.  Sometimes the animal shelter where I volunteer is very full of dogs, and occasionally there are days when we don’t have enough people to get them all out for their daily walk.  And when that happens, I don’t head home from my volunteer shift feeling good about all the dogs that I did help that day.  Instead, I fret about the dogs that I wasn’t able to walk, and often end up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

The same thing even happens with my blog.  If a particular post gets 200 views and 43 likes, I am usually quite happy with that, at least for a little while.  But then (and I’m almost ashamed to admit this) I often start to wonder just exactly why those other 157 people who viewed my post didn’t like it.  Which is just ridiculous, especially when I remember that when I started my blog I didn’t think I’d ever reach 200 followers, much less write a post that had that many views.

Of course I am very aware of all that is positive, beautiful and good in my life, and I do appreciate it.  I really do.  It’s just that I have this annoying habit of paying far too much attention to the things that aren’t going right, to the goals that I’m not able to accomplish, and to all those minor imperfections that are a normal part of everyone’s life.  And I really, really, want to stop doing that.

My husband and I just spent an unhappy couple of hours stringing some mini lights on the real Christmas tree that we put up in our basement family room.  We decided to try mini lights this year because they stay cool and are light-weight enough for this tree’s delicate branches, but I found them hard to work with because they don’t have clips to hold them in place.  We also had to replace an insanely tiny fuse and run back to the store for another strand.  Soon, we will hang the ornaments, and if I win the argument with my husband this year, we might even add some tinsel.

I am quite sure that the finished result won’t be perfect.  But I am equally sure that when we are done decorating this tree, it will be beautiful.  And I have made a solemn promise to myself that when I look at that tree, all I am going to notice is the beauty.  It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve got to start somewhere.

Light It Up

IMG_0948As far as I’m concerned, the very second Thanksgiving is over, the Christmas season begins.  Within hours of clearing away the Thanksgiving dinner table and dividing up the left over turkey among my family, I am already planning my Christmas decorations for this year.  Others may spend Black Friday battling the crowds at the malls and big box stores for bargains, but I spend the day after Thanksgiving getting my house ready for Christmas.   I drag out my boxes of Christmas decorations while my husband assembles the tree in our living room in preparation for our annual tree trimming, which is always done while drinking champagne and listening to Nat King Cole.  Before the weekend is over, both my house and the tree are usually fully decorated.

Until this year, that is.  This year, things went terribly wrong.

We couldn’t find the lights for our Christmas tree.  We spent hours searching every box in the basement and every closet in the house before we came to the sad conclusion that we must have thrown them out when we took the tree down last year, because we were worried that they were getting too hot to be safe.  We decorate our tree with antique Christmas ornaments and like to string old-fashioned ceramic bulbs to go with them, but sometimes those bulbs can get very hot and then we worry about them being a fire hazard.  So we headed to the stores in hopes of finding some new ceramic lights that we could safely string on our tree.

But old-fashioned ceramic lights turned out to be very difficult to find.  The store shelves are full of the new LED lights, in an amazing array of colors and shapes.  If I wanted lights that shifted from colored to white and then back to colored again in less than five seconds, they had them.  If I wanted strings of miniature lights, flashing lights, lights that were shaped like Mickey Mouse’s ears, they had them.  They even had strings of somewhat normal shaped bulbs, but they included pink, yellow and purple lights, and Christmas lights were never meant to come in those colors.  That’s just a sin against God and country, as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, I found a string of old-fashioned C-7 sized bulbs in normal Christmas colors, so I bought three packages.  Then I spotted some LED lights, also in normal colors and only slightly larger bulbs than I’m used to, so I bought some of those as well, as a back-up.  But when I got home, I discovered that the old-fashioned lights became hot enough to burn my fingers within minutes of plugging them in, so I decided to suck it up and venture into new territory by stringing the LED lights on the tree.  It took me two hours and five strings, but I finally got them all on.

And my husband and I actually thought they didn’t look too bad, until we made the mistake of turning off the rest of the living room lights to bask in the glow of our Christmas tree lights.  Because there wasn’t any glow to bask in.  LED lights may be bright and look pretty on the tree, but they throw out no light at all.  None.  And what’s the point of having a lighted Christmas tree if you can’t sit in the living room on a cold December night, with nothing on but the tree lights and a fire in the fireplace, and enjoy the soft, cozy glow?

So, tonight we went back to the store, and found some “cool light” C-7 bulbs that look old-fashioned enough to show off our antique ornaments and bathe our living room in a Christmas glow without threatening to burn the house down.  I’m going to put them on the tree tomorrow, and hope that they work out.  Because if they don’t, I’m going to be spending the next few days searching for lights that do work out, and time is not on my side.  But no one ever said the quest for holiday perfection was an easy one.

Changing Traditions

Holly Hills ChristmasWhen I was a child, I was taught that there was only one correct way to decorate a Christmas tree.  We always got a real tree, and it had to be a fir and it could not be put up before December 10th.  We used the big, old-fashioned colored lights and we always put a white light at the top of the tree, and the ornaments were hung according to size, starting with the littlest at the very top of the tree and ending with the largest at the very bottom.  We used mostly glass ornaments, but a few homemade ones were also acceptable.  Finally, we covered the tree with tinsel (the old fashioned aluminum kind which I’m pretty sure contained lead), and that was hung with exactly one strand per branch, starting with the top of the tree and working down.  Of course I saw trees that were decorated differently at my friends’ houses, but secretly, I always thought those trees weren’t quite “right.”

DSC00087Then I married a man who had grown up with pine Christmas trees, often flocked (sprayed with fake snow, for those who aren’t old enough to remember).  He also hated tinsel and thought that mini lights looked best, even though they had pink bulbs along with the traditional red, blue, green and white ones.  I thought it was borderline sacrilegious to put pink bulbs on a Christmas tree, and as far as I was concerned, pine trees didn’t smell like Christmas.  Compromise was slow, but inevitable, and eventually I stopped hanging ornaments by size, bought an artificial tree so it could go up shortly after Thanksgiving, and gave up on the need for tinsel.  I still cling to my old-fashioned lights and glass ornaments, and no tree of mine has ever been “flocked.”  We now have trees (two: a real tree in the basement and an artificial tree in the living room) that we both like.

I remember being a bit annoyed with my husband when he first questioned the Christmas tree decorating rules I had been raised with, and for many years I insisted on adding plastic tinsel to our trees, even knowing how much he disliked it.  (The living room windows in our first apartment were so drafty that the tinsel on our tree was usually swaying in the breeze, which I thought just added to the charm.)  For me, Christmas was all about tradition, and I wanted to stick with the traditions I knew best, even when they didn’t really work anymore.  It took a long time before I realized that traditions are important, but they aren’t nearly as  important as making the people you love happy and doing what works best in the here and now.

Over the years, husband and I have learned to compromise on nearly all of our holiday traditions.  When we were married but childless, we drove over 500 miles each Christmas to make sure we spent  Christmas Eve and Christmas day with our parents and extended families.  When the kids came along, that didn’t work anymore, and we began to stay home for Christmas morning. Now our kids are adults, one married and one engaged, and our Christmas celebrations continue to change as we figure out what works best for everybody each year.  And that’s as it should be.

I will always be a fan of holiday traditions, but I no longer make the mistake of thinking that keeping those traditions are the most important thing.  My Christmas trees may not look exactly like the ones in my childhood, but I still think they are beautiful.  And my family may celebrate Christmas a bit differently each year, but we still have a wonderful time together.  The best traditions, I think, are the ones that are flexible enough to include everybody.

That being said, I’m still not ever going to have pink lights on my Christmas tree.  There’s such a thing as too much compromise.