But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…
I’ve always loved Christmas. I’ve loved the carols, baking the foods we love to eat this time of year, the parties, the lights we string around windows and through ivy draped over top of the leaded windows in our entrance area. I love choosing presents, making them when I can, and I love preparing the bags we give to our friends: jars of marinated olives, small loaves of white chocolate fruit cake, shortbread, little bowls. I’ve loved the anticipation of family members arriving, often in time for John’s birthday on the 19th; traditionally this has been the start of our season, a party for 6 or 10 or 25, depending.
This year I couldn’t feel the spirit enter my heart for the longest time. Why bake when we’re not going to be seeing anyone? Why prepare the olives (though the huge jars bought at the Parthenon in Vancouver on the day before John’s surgery in October were waiting in the cool porch). Why. I did shop. I packaged up gifts for my children and their children. I made a quilt for a daughter-in-law’s birthday (today!), stitching by the fire, and at least for that time I found a kind of peace in the movement of the needle in and out, pulling its blue thread along. When we sat down to work out charitable gifts, it felt overwhelming. So many who need help and a limited budget to work with. It’s just been a hard fall for a number of reasons, for so many of us. I wasn’t unhappy but perhaps I was too busy and stressed to understand that what I always loved about Christmas was still potent and waiting. I wasn’t even sure I’d bring a tree into the house to hang with the old ornaments, a star on top.
…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…
Last week I made the gingerbreads to package up for children young and not so young. I made shortbread. Not the white chocolate fruit cake, golden with apricots, Smyrna figs, hazelnuts, and jeweled with dried cherries. Not this year. And little by little, I began to feel moments of joy. Was it when I was filling the birdfeeder and a cloud of chickadees descended, one landing on my hand, the elegant nuthatch who travels with them keeping its distance? Or when I realized that we still needed to celebrate John’s birthday properly, even if it meant setting the table for just the two of us? A blue cloth, our Midwinter Moon plates (bought in Bath when we first knew each other and wanted to make a home together), napkins with sunflowers, the candles lit, the Waterford glasses shining. There was even cake—hazelnut torte with ganache (I scaled back my usual method for 8…). We raised our glasses to health and happiness for all.
Through the magic of gadgets, we watched The Tailor of Gloucester on Friday night with two of our grandchildren. It’s such a lovely story, full of music, mice making tiny buttonholes with cherry-coloured twist, the rats who find the kegs of wine singing and carousing in grand style, and courtly dancing. Do you have a Christmas tree, my grandson asked, and I told him, no, but we’ll go up the mountain like we always do and cut a small one. He described theirs and his voice was full of joy.
In the long calendar of the year, there are the dark days and then the ones rich with light. I was awake at 2:02 a.m. at the moment of the longest night. I was awake, filled with hope. As the days grow longer, I am hopeful that we will come together again, all of us, in person, to take up our lives in community again. As friends, as families, as citizens. Hopeful that a small tree will hold the riches of the year.
When the last of the spirits shows Ebenezer Scrooge his own gravestone, his name on it serving to shake him finally to a new realization of what could happen if he remained miserly and tiny-souled, Scrooge has a true change of heart, from the man who asked, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”, to the man who becomes a model of generosity and good will.
I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!
Next year, I won’t put off making the white chocolate fruitcakes or scale down the birthday torte preparations but plan the feasts for all those who have traditionally come and those who might like to again.