The days on either end of Christmas are so jealous.
I know a lot of people who--for non-religious reasons--could do without Christmas. I can't understand them any more than I can catch a spiraling football thrown at me from 50 yards away. That is to say I can't understand them at all.
But I would hazard to guess that my mother made that happen for me. She was the great orchestrator. She made sure the presents were wrapped and the ornaments safely put up on the tree. She got out the Christmas records and put up the paper cutouts of Santas and reindeer and elves on the wall. She made sure that I had a little something to wrap up for everyone in my family when the big day came.
And she instilled in me that not only is this time of the year special, but if you do it right you can elevate the rest of your days in each year to try to keep up with Christmas--to make them jealous.
It took me almost 40 years to understand, but I finally did. Thank god.
This year, like last year, the coming cold weather reminds me of how I felt right before the big change, when the great orchestrator passed on. I have a habit of saving my calendars. And if I looked for it I could find the date on the same calendar that was hanging on my wall that I got at the bank for free, like I always did, the year before ... when she was still very much here.
And, just as life suddenly changes forever, it somehow involuntarily retains its similarities.
The coats come out of hiding in the recesses of the closet crying for the lint brush. The gloves stuffed into hats fall on the floor for lack of remembering. The scarves get placed around necks, prepared to lose a few thousand strands more on our shoulders. And they all collectively say, "is it that time already?"
When this all happens I can't help but get a little worked up.
When this all happens the days on either end of Christmas get just a little more jealous.
I was never raised with much organized religion in my life. My babush (grandmother in Polish) was the last of the stalwart Catholics. When she died in 1980 there was a big mess with the local priest and what kind of service we should have. Shortly thereafter we actively parted ways and never looked back. So I don't really remember letting god muck up the holidays. Christmas was, for me, not about the birth of Jesus any more than it was about the birth of my aunt on December 15th (that holiday was far removed as if it happened in the summer, as per her request). This was a time for family, food, jokes, soda, T.V. and presents. Oh, and dressing up the dogs in little elf outfits. Although it really was just a switch of type of outfit; they wore at least some kind of clothes--be it a hat, a vest, or a fancy collar--on a semi-regular basis. But like I was saying, it wasn't so much of a religious time of year but a time of year when time was celebrated. When each clock ticked just a little louder. When the sun went to bed just a little bit earlier. And when the schoolwork got just a little bit easier, knowing that the pens, pencils, crayons, rulers, math paper, safety scissors, and lunch boxes would get stowed for a week or so to let overworked brains safely transition from letters and numbers to colors, shapes, tastes, sounds and smells.
In a time before remote controls--before video tapes even--before we could watch our life and the lives of others on screen in slow motion at the push of a button, the holiday season let me take in each frame and document each detail not caring if it would ever come again, because if it were done right the world could end on January 1st and I would feel like I got my money's worth.
It's only the 11th of December and there are plenty of days left of this holiday season. Jodi and I have been hard at work sending out cards and plotting who gets what for whom.
We went, together, and picked out a tree at the same place where I got one, alone, last year. The guy seemed to remember me. I definitely remembered him. We brought it home on her lunch break and put it in the corner of the dining room where it goes, then I drove her the half mile back to work. My hands got a little sticky from the sap. It smelled like cold, excited nature. That, I love.
We made a pot of potpourri on the stove with some cloves and cinnamon and allspice that my aunt had given me a couple of years ago. I forgot I had them until I pulled the pot out to make it. Nothing smells like that. Nothing.
We've been trimming the tree slowly. I now possess so many family ornaments it's staggering. This year we are making a few of our own and, at the same time, trying to use some restraint and choose each one that goes up carefully so as to not overdo it. There are a few that have yet to make their way on that are a must. But there is still--as I have said--plenty of time.
I have each year--for thirty years now--happily honored my very favorite Christmas album with a post-tree trimming listening party. That album would be John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together, and this year was no different. If you grew up with it (it came out in 1979) then you know what I'm talking about. If not you may still enjoy it. It embodies all of what was good and right in the 1970's. John Denver was in his prime and The Muppets were the biggest non-human stars in the world (only to be rivaled by Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2). It's got some holiday classics and some originals played by studio greats (orchestrated by Ray Charles!) and sung with welcome restraint by a master of the sentimental. The whole album affects me and there is a certain gravitas that accompanies its debut every year.
I laid on my living room floor with my girlfriend in front of a roaring fire and pushed play ... and then came the tears. I cried and cried and cried. Because, for me, the 45 minutes of music it contains reminds me of so much. My babush would pass away a year after the album's release. She loved The Muppets, she loved Christmas, and she loved me. And each year following my mother tried so very hard to not let her absence overshadow the holidays. And each year we listened to this record. Needless to say it marks the end and the beginning of a way of life for me.
She was the first one who I loved to leave this earth on my watch.
This time of year means many things to so many different people. In almost every culture there is some kind of celebration, some kind of emotional enunciation, some kind of sharing of customs. I don't recall ever looking around and asking why we did what we did. When I was a child there was no such thing as political correctness (or not any I was aware of) and so, I never once restrained myself from saying "Merry Christmas" to anyone and everyone. Although, I would hazard to guess that if it came from a child--any child--one would be hard pressed to not smile and thank them regardless of what faith one claimed allegiance to.
Because the way I saw it then and the way I see it now is not much different. Our world is our world as long as we can claim it is. The voices carry only for so long and only for so far down the line from one person who heard it to the next. I'm telling you how it makes me feel. I'm giving you a first hand account. And this may seem like it's all a big emotional sneeze--it builds up, it happens, it's over, and someone acknowledges it ...
And hopefully, there will always be a reason for us to connect like that. Hopefully, there will always be a need to lock eyes and smile, or cry, or even look away if that's what it takes to remember why we're here.
And hopefully, the days on either end of Christmas will get jealous every year.
Thanks for sharing yours with me.
And, of course, thanks for reading,