Blue Christmas

Last week we had a holiday potluck lunch at work.  People brought the usual assortment of fatty, salty and sweet treats, and the department sat around and ate together.  Some of the folks really don’t know each other all that well, and others really don’t like some of the 800px-Christmas_tree_bauble[1]others.  To get the conversation started, a well-meaning person said, “Let’s go around the table and tell what we’re doing for the holidays.”

This is a gambit loaded with pitfalls, and sure enough, they happened.  Not everybody has the perfect family, or a family, and many people don’t have anywhere to go.  One divorced woman was waiting on her infuriating sister to decide if she was hosting Christmas or not.  A single gay guy said he plans to sleep through it, since he will be singing in choirs or as a soloist (his side job) through Christmas Eve.  Our head of technology (a woman) sat at the table with tears sliding down her face.  She’s married, but they have always spent Christmas with her sister, who died a few months ago.

Christmas is a time of joy for many, of irritation for others, and of sadness for others still.  My father was always melancholy at Christmas because his mother died in December.  Mother would hiss at him, “George, cheer up, for the children!”

Perhaps the bluest Christmas I’ve ever had was the year after Daddy died.  Mother and I went through the motions, even traipsing out into the fields to cut down a cedar tree and dragging it back to the house to decorate.  It was too tall, and Uncle Floyd had to come over and cut the trunk shorter so we could get it in the living room.  We spent many a sad Christmas Day alone together after he died because Mother would not “intrude on someone else’s Christmas,” even though we were invited for dinner many times.

I learned my lesson from that.  If someone cares enough about me to invite me on a holiday, I’ll go.  If I can invite someone else who doesn’t want to be alone, I will.  And I admire the guy at work who just wants to sleep–sometimes you’ve had enough celebrating!  I’d like to thank the friends who give me a reason to celebrate Easter and Thanksgiving, and to thank my sister who makes Christmas happen each year.  And I’m grateful for the friends who help me celebrate throughout the year.

So, a happy Christmas to all, and let’s be sensitive to those who don’t have a picture-perfect holiday.  You may be showing kindness to an “angel, unawares.”


The Return of the Light

800px-Christmas_tree_bauble[1]A lot of us find the holiday season difficult.  As the days get shorter and darker, some folks get more and more depressed.  In ancient times people sought for explanations of the seasonal changes.  Why did the days get shorter?  Why did they then begin to lengthen again?  What is the pattern of all this?

Astronomy evolved from the search for answers and from observation of the natural world.  Many of the world’s religions celebrate the winter solstice, when the shortest day of the year leads to lengthening again.  Many religions and cultures have a festival of lights, whether it’s Hanukkah or Diwali, the winter solstice or Christmas.

Why do we long for the light and fear the darkness?  Is it because we as humans don’t see well at night, so darkness became a source of fear?

This year seems particularly dark, especially with the horrible massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut.  And there have been several other mass shootings this year.

Next Friday, Dec. 21, is the solstice.  Let’s hope that this holiday season will help us turn to the light, as the days begin to lengthen and we celebrate Christmas.

And I am calling us all to action.  Enough darkness.  Enough killing.  There is no legitimate reason for any private citizen to have an assault rifle or a semi-automatic pistol.  Let’s work to outlaw these weapons of massive death!

A Need for Quiet and Repose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADon’t get me wrong–I love Christmas, and New Year’s, and the whole holiday season.  I love being with friends and family.  I always travel to be with a part of my family at Christmas.  I have given a “holiday party” for anywhere from 12 to 28 people for the last 15 years.

But I also find this season exhausting, and sometimes melancholy.  I think of my parents who have died, the many aunts and uncles who are gone, and others I have loved and lost.  Holiday grief is not unusual.  Here’s a useful blog post (which I wrote) for my former employer, Regional Hospice and Home Care of Western Connecticut, on the topic.

Sometimes it’s not even that.  It’s just exhaustion!  And sometimes, it’s just good to be at home.  Nights like tonight, when I am tired and still coughing from this blasted upper respiratory infection (2 weeks later!), it’s a wonderful thing to have the Christmas tree lit, and a comfy bed, and a good book.  I’ll even turn off Sunday Night Football and go to bed early with a book, the cat, and quiet.  I don’t need snow or carols.  I just need home.

So, as Tiny Tim said, God bless us every one!  Here’s to being snug and warm and loved.  And for those who aren’t, may God give you those graces in the new year.  And may the rest of us step up to make it happen, too.

Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down

Do you know the old Kris Kristofferson song, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”?  The lyrics are really poetic in a country kind of way.  He paints a sharp picture of what it’s like to wake up in a “sleeping city” (probably Nashville) with a terrible hangover and yet sharply observe the Sunday morning.

Part of that description is the “Sunday smell of someone frying chicken,” which takes the singer back to “something left behind.”  Smell is powerful at evoking memories, perhaps more powerful than any other sense.

I spent this Sunday morning baking cookies, not an activity I often pursue, and the scent of the cookies took me back to Mother baking at Christmastime.  The recipe was from my sister Juanita–I will share it if she permits, but not today–and called for nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon, as well as chopped dates, raisins and walnuts.  Something about the spices and the scent of dried fruit baking reminded me of Mother making a blackberry jam cake which used the same spices.

That was a three-layer cake iced with boiled icing.  Some people think a jam cake is just another fruitcake, but it doesn’t have those nasty candied fruits.  And when it is baking, the house smells of those Christmas spices and baking blackberries.

Thinking of Mother reminds me of another scent.  When I was young she always used perfumed dusting powder on her thighs and arms and chest.  She said it kept her from chafing.  I can’t remember what kind it was, although I faintly remember a pink round box with gold trim and a flat white pad instead of a powder puff.  I do remember a strong flowery scent with a bit of baby powder smell as well.  She was fond of Estee Lauder when she got older, but I don’t think we could afford that back in the day.  I wish I could smell it again.

So another Sunday is winding down.  Here’s to a good week, to all of us on sleeping city sidewalks, bustling suburban highways, and quiet villages.  Peace out.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Like about one-third of the country, I’m traveling for the Christmas holiday.  So I’m taking a break from the blog for a bit, not wanting to monopolize my brother-in-law’s computer or laboriously post from the iPod Touch.  I want to experience Christmas with my family, not record it.

Before I go, however, I want to make a shout-out to last December in New York and New Jersey.  Mercifully, I put that disaster out of my mind until time to travel this year.  I got out before the storm came last year, but I couldn’t get back home.  Flying on Continental miles, I was at the bottom of the list for rescheduled flights and would have had to wait over a week to get back to New York.  So I rented a car and drove back from Ohio.  I stood in line with three other people who were doing the same.

The drive was not unpleasant, although the roads still had some ice in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  I sang along with the radio and my iPod, and stopped about once every hour or so.  Things got eerie once I got to New Jersey.  It was dark, and mountains of snow dwarfed the highways.  I got to Newark Airport, turned in the rental car, and took a shuttle van to the parking lot where I’d left my car.

The van driver stopped where I remembered my car was parked.  The plowed snow had made tunnels over the smaller cars.  My little yellow Hyundai Tiburon was buried to the roof.  The driver immediately pulled out a shovel and dug out my car.  I gave him $20 and thanked him profusely.  Left to myself, I’d have had to wait for spring to thaw it out.

So I’m hoping this year will not provide adventures.  I’m looking for quiet times with my sister’s family, sitting by their fireplace.  Best wishes to everyone for happy holidays, and more to come later on!


Decorating the Tree

My mother had a yard sale at our house on the farm before she sold the house and moved to an apartment in town, some years after Daddy died.  She was tired and ill, and there was very little she held on to other than her clothes and her china and crystal.

I came to help out, and ended up hauling stuff back home with me that I couldn’t bear to be sold.  My sister Sherrie was there, and she spotted all the Christmas ornaments and lights, heaped on the ground.  Mother had kept the ornaments my sisters had given her, but had dumped all the balls and lights.

“Look at this,” Sherrie said.  “These lights are older than you are.”  She was right–I remembered them.  The bulbs were plastic or glass and shaped like birds or stars.  Sherrie always claimed the yellow bird sang to her from the top of the tree one Christmas.  I took the string, as well as a string of the original Bubble Lights.  Both strings were the kind that, if one bulb goes out, the string goes out, so you had go around the tree tightening and replacing bulbs until the string came back on again.

Those lights went to Atlanta with me, and then on to New York.  I haven’t used them for several years.  I bought one of those pre-lit artificial trees that looks more like a bottle brush than anything else a few years ago.  When I load it down with ornaments it doesn’t look too ghastly.

But this time of year I remember searching over the farm for a cedar tree without a fork in the top.  The first year after Daddy died, Mother and I went out into the fields with an ax, determined to have a Christmas no matter how awful we felt.  We found a big, lovely cedar, round and full.  It was all we could do to cut it down and drag it back to the house.

We put it in the garage and went to set it in a bucket of water so it could soak up some before it went in the tree stand.  The tree was about six inches too tall for the garage ceiling, which meant it was more than a foot too tall for the house.  Mother looked like she was going to burst into tears.

Then the phone rang.  Uncle Floyd called to see what was going on.  Mother told him our problem.  He showed up 15 minutes later and sawed off the bottom of the tree to the correct height.  So we had Christmas after all, using those bird lights, the Bubble Lights and all the other strings we had.

Holiday Prelude: Not Always Jolly

This time of year I miss my father even more than usual.  As we get closer to Christmas, I think of how it was always a difficult time for him.  He became very quiet and sad, depressed I guess we would say now.  His mother died in December, and he missed her as we got closer to Christmas.

I remember Mother saying to him, “You have to pick yourself up and do this for HER.  I won’t let you ruin HER Christmas.”  It took me a while to figure out that HER was me.

Daddy, to his credit, managed to pull himself together each year.  Mother and Daddy would argue about when to get the tree–he always wanted to wait until Christmas Eve, convinced it was a fire hazard, and Mother wanted it earlier so we could enjoy it.

I felt his cloud of depression beforehand, but we would go out into the fields and pick out a cedar tree to cut down for our Christmas tree.  Mother exhorted us to get one that didn’t have a fork in the top (a common flaw of cedar trees).  Daddy would cut it down, and we dragged it home, put it in a bucket of water in the garage or back yard, and let it soak up some water before taking it inside.

Nothing smells better than a fresh cut cedar tree.  the scent is sweeter and stronger than a pine tree.  And of course the trees we have now, cut in October in Michigan or Canada, coated in fireproofing spray and fake green, have no real smell to speak of.  A cedar tree smells like a wooden cedar chest, only green and alive.

Once we started decorating Daddy started to cheer up a bit.  I still have some of the strings of old lights we used, and the battered glass balls.  He did his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve–old southern tradition, because you didn’t have the money to shop until then (unless you were doing layaway at Montgomery Wards).

These days I have a fake tree, since I’m usually away at my sister’s house for a few days, and I don’t like to leave a live one to get dry.  But I usually get a live green wreath or table arrangement.  I need that smell of fresh greens to make the holidays real.

Holiday Cooking Disasters, or Almost

I’m always nervous when it’s time to cook a big holiday meal, or even to contribute toward a group effort at one.  I spent many years not cooking for big events, and I still happily go to my sister’s house or a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or any other big foodie holiday.

I have finally learned to cook that turkey and bake that ham.  But I’m scarred by previous experiences.  The first time I roasted a turkey, for a Christmas party some years ago, I used a cooking bag (highly recommended).  I did not stuff it, because my family believes in dressing, baked outside the turkey, instead of stuffing, baked inside the turkey, so that’s what I do.  The turkey came out beautifully golden brown, with a moist breast and nicely done drumsticks.  Then I went to carve it, and found the plastic bag in the cavity with the giblets and neck in it.  Woops!  I didn’t say a word, just carved away.

Hams are capable of error as well, even pre-cooked ones that you just have to warm in the oven for a few hours.  I discovered that when I baked a ham–years ago, I swear–for the residents’ dinner at my local YMCA.  I had peeled off the layer of thin cellophane or plastic the meat packer encases the ham with before I put it in the oven.  How was I to know there was a second coat, a red one to match the skin?  Fortunately I figured this out when the ham began to get warm and emit an unusual odor.

Then there was the year I dropped a giant pot of sweet potatoes (already sweetened and spiced, of course) in the sink.  That one broke my heart.  All that work down the drain!  And I burned my hand, which is what made me drop it in the first place.

Fortunately, making mistakes is a great, if painful, way to learn.  I can bake a lovely ham now, or roast a fine turkey.  Holidays are safe at my house, I promise.  And thank goodness someone else is cooking this year!


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