It is officially Christmas Eve – for a few moments now, which means it is late and the house is quiet and I’m alone with my thoughts in this space. We’ve been lucky to have a bit of time to get away and unwind before the holiday that falls this year in the center of the week. I’ve taken this down time to finish up the cards that I started on the first of December. It’s funny that I mentioned my initial plan to create an advent calendar that counted down the days of the month before tossing that idea, because here I’ve done it – marking the twenty-four days of this month anyway with pieces of these cards.
I never intended for the Christmas tree to become this metaphor for my take on the season this year. I was struggling in November with the idea of the holidays at all – I kept saying that I wanted the remainder of this year to just pass by – the sooner, the better. Our holiday traditions kick off each year with the purchase of our tree, and I couldn’t imagine buying one this year. The effort seemed so monumental, the end result incongruous with the way I felt inside. We attended the Festival of Trees and Lights, a fundraiser for the children’s hospital that treated and cared for my niece, and within that forest of trees there was one for her. I love the fact that so very many people have found so very many ways to remember her this season. I love that the tree sparkles and shines and is covered in glitter from top to bottom. But it’s a tree. It’s just a tree. We don’t need a tree, we just want her.
E was working on a school project about the Nile River and Ancient Egyptians, and she told me that they decorated their homes with green palm branches on the solstice to symbolize the triumph of life over death. I knew that the solstice – the longest night of the year – was celebrated with evergreen branches by many groups of people over the ages. It was not my choice to purchase a tree this year, but I’m glad that we did. It has been a reminder, for me, of that promise of renewal, and new life. Even a quiet tree can be that.
The first week, our tree stood in the corner of the living room, boughs adjusting to the space, settling in and filling out. It’s shape was so perfect, and it scented the air of our rooms with a smell that I’ve come to associate with peace and comfort. I cut paper fir needles on the bed beside my daughters, while they read books and told me stories and slept.
The second week, I pulled out the white lights in the wee hours of the morning while I waited. The girls had made a welcome home sign for their dad, and he was traveling home after a long week, through the snow and the ice. I felt like the tree needed some lights to greet him when he walked through the door. I cut more fir needles in the chair next to my love when he returned while we watched shows that made us laugh and unwind and escape.
The third week we added an angel ornament, given to us in honor of her. A few days later, the thirteen commemorative silver bells – one for each year of our marriage and our home – mysteriously appeared within the branches. I glued hundreds of little paper branches together to form bigger branches, and then assembled them on the wall – looking at the real tree to see how the structure of the tree really worked.
These last few weeks of the year we are spending with family. There are other trees heavy with ornaments, piles of presents around the base. I brought paper ornaments and gold thread and a stack of cards and envelopes, and I took over a wall in my sister’s house to set up the paper tree. We constructed it, decorated it, and photographed it. Each individual card is numbered, with a single ornament hanging from a branch.
A portion of the enclosure in the card reads:
The symbol of the empty evergreen in our living room this year has been a reminder to me of the quiet work of grief. My card this year is a paper replica of that empty evergreen and a symbol of the community of branches – friends and family – supporting us along the way. Your card is a piece of this larger tree. The ornaments symbolize the sparkle that Erin added to our lives – her laughter, her dancing, her blue eyes, her freckles.
I have many things on the list of ” no—this year”.
No homemade goodies for friends and neighbors this year.
No teacher gifts this year.
No ornaments on the tree this year.
No wreaths or pine garlands or little white lights on the porch or iron fence this year.
No iced Christmas cookies this year.
No Nutcracker or other seasonal programs / shows this year.
Earlier in the year I purchased material to make many of our gifts this year – most of that is sitting in the closet, waiting for another time.
I usually shop for friends and family from little shops in town and on our travels – this year, M and I sat down one night and placed all of our orders online.
My holiday cards are always started in late fall, and finished by now – ready for mailing off to all corners of the country. This year they are most decidedly not.
But here’s what I know on this day before the longest night of the year. I can sit comfortably on the edge of that hole and let it be what it is. I can resist the urge to fill the hole with all manner of things that occupy my hands and distract me from its presence and its depth. I can be at peace that everything need not be done by a certain date on the calendar at the expense of enjoying the days leading up to it. I can let go of all the things that are so good to do for others, even when it’s hard to do – hard, because they are important – the gift making and sharing and fellowship and connecting. I can do that because I know they will come back again, in another time. Not to fill up holes, but to build bridges across them, and to nurture those hands that hold my own so that I don’t slip over the edge.
There is a calmness and a comfort in this place where I am sitting. On the longest night of the year I will sit around a long table, surrounded by family – slowing down, letting go, and letting it be. I will light a candle for her, and give thanks for the days we were given, and are given.
My favorite kind of snow is “book snow”, and here are my favorite snowy tales. The definition of a good snowy tale to me is one that speaks quietly and paints the landscape in the rainbow colors of powdery layers of snow.
The Snowy Day holds a very special place in my heart, and is probably the book most quoted and referred to by my children – particularly when there is enough snow to make tracks and drag sticks. I love-love-love the latest printing for the 50th anniversary because of all the biographical information in the back – reading about Keats’ process is fascinating to me.
Owl Moon is one of my favorite books to read. It’s quiet, and thrilling and no one utters a word while we read it.
You might be familiar with Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. There are no words, just illustrations, and my girls love to “read” through it – sometimes just studying all the pictures and the details, but often narrating the adventures on their own. I also highly recommend the animated version of the book – beautiful music, and all the magical imagery of the book. A good winter tradition.
The girls love Brave Irene, and I love anything by William Steig. You’ll hold your breath a few times during this story – it’s tense and exciting and just a tad bit nerve wracking as Irene braves the snow and wind on an errand for her dear mother. F even named one of her dolls after Irene.
And I couldn’t round up snow books without including the previously mentioned (and lauded) Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Absolutely perfect in every way. Klassen’s use of shadow and white (ink and paper) is perfection, and Barnett’s story is magical.