The holiday season has arrived
I don’t do Black Friday
I know there are people — some of them my friends — who relish the ritual of awakening early on the day after Thanksgiving to gird themselves for retail battle. They brave the mired parking lots, aren’t put off by the fevered hordes competing for bargains on everything from smart televisions to smart socks, and willingly endure the soulless countenances of the store employees who were forced to rise like zombies from their turkey-induced comas to man the checkout lines.
Not me. I am not immune to the collective frenzy that erupts at the end of November but I’ve chosen a different method of expressing it. On the day after Thanksgiving, barring out-of-town travel or ill health, I decorate the house.
Mind you, the house at this point is already decorated, but for fall. Autumn is my favorite season, but the moment the leftovers have been stowed in the fridge, I’m over it. Out with the pumpkins and gourds! In with the sparkly stuff!
It was simpler in the olden days
When I was a kid, sometime prior to the Punic Wars, holiday decorating was far more restrained. At least it was in my neighborhood, where Halloween meant carving one jack o’lantern and putting it on the front porch, November meant getting out the once-a-year turkey platter, and Christmas involved bringing home a wispy, wet tree from the local tree lot, sometime in the middle of December.
Then the rest of us retreated to a safe distance and listened to my dad’s colorful language as he set the tree up in the living room and strung the bleepity-bleep-bleep lights on it. Those were the good old days when if one light on the string went out, none of them worked, and it was anybody’s guess as to which one needed replacing.
Once the struggle concluded, we would approach and trim the (slightly leaning) tree with glass balls and tinsel. And that was that, except for the one fancy crystal bowl my mother filled with a few special ornaments.
One or two of the more aspirational neighbors employed ladders and put up a string of colored lights above their porches. But knowing the toll the tree lights took on my father’s temperament, none of us even suggested doing the same thing.
We were perfectly content with our modest tree — which, during the following two weeks dried out until it was an explosion-in-waiting that dropped needles we’d still be vacuuming up in July. But with the tree, and Bing Crosby crooning sappy Christmas songs via our strictly mono record player, we marinated in the spirit of the season.
The bar has risen since
Once I had kids, I uncritically absorbed the expectation that making Christmas happen was my job. When my boys were little guys and we had the big family house, I approached Christmas with the zeal and determination of a theater producer. No surface was immune to decoration, no archway or handrail free from garlanding. Our mantel sported half-sized, gilded reindeer and a wreath worthy of a department store, while our tree was a twelve-foot prelit monster that we placed on top of a four-foot pedestal. This was the period of my life in which I quickly learned that if I didn’t start in on Thanksgiving weekend, the chances of my getting everything done in time for the whirl of school performances, parties, and family gatherings grew vanishingly slim.
I’ve since scaled back
We’re empty nesters of long-standing now, and our house is smaller. The big events tend to happen at the homes of the younger families in our clan, which is as it should be (and frankly a relief). But I still feel the need to burnish the house, outside and in, to a holiday sheen.
It takes at least a day, and that’s not counting trimming the tree, which my husband and I like to do at a leisurely pace while playing a vintage seasonal movie and sipping something cheering. But tricking out the front porch and balcony, distributing fa-la-la on the mantel and buffet and table and staircase niche, etc., etc. — that’s my thing. My husband’s job is to make the necessary trips up and down the stairs to the attic and hand down the boxes (and boxes) of stuff.
Then he puts on our holiday playlist, and retreats
I get busy with the fluffing and arranging and festooning, and as I do I fall into a reverie. Some of it is nostalgic and a bit melancholic — after all, I’ve seen a lot of Christmases come and go by now, and the family tree has dropped a number of beloved branches while sprouting new ones. That’s the thing about this season, with its brew of timelessness and change, that makes it uniquely poignant.
As I wrangle lights and reposition greenery, the Ghost of Christmas Past presents me with a mental slide show of celebrations that were. Other trees in other houses, surrounded by feverishly excited children who have since grown into adults, many with families of their own. Huge dinners and long drives and endless games of Monopoly, and usually at least one kid with a cold. Stress, exhaustion, hilarity, and joy.
New Year’s will turn our faces to the future and our hopes for it, but Christmas links us to what has come before. And as I polish and arrange and position my pared-down collection of festive stuff, I think of all the generations of women who have done the same thing, at least since the Victorians began making such a big deal out of the whole thing.
Christmas also puts us in the here and now. After all, there’s a lot to do: gifts to buy and wrap, cards to send (or email), cookie exchanges to bake for, and, if we’re lucky, celebrations to prepare for. I am lucky indeed that, while my family constellation has certainly changed shape over the decades and lost a few of my favorite stars, it’s an ever-expanding, sparkling firmament, one to which I’m thankful to add my own wee light, for as long as I’m allowed to shine.
For now, I’m already vacuuming up glitter, and I don’t know what it will take to get it all off the dog.