Monday, December 7, 2009
My favorite time of year has arrived. I’ve strung my lights, decked my hall, surrounded my windows with garland. I’ve hung red glass ornaments from red organza ribbons. I’ve eaten two bags of colorful foil-wrapped Kisses, minus the foil. Someone’s nestled my mother’s sculpture of a banana-eating orangutan into the angel hair of our nativity scene, where he squats reverently between the sheep and the camel. And why not? Let him visit the Holy Child, too.
My mother also has a nativity scene, which she displays year round, and for well over a decade, my son has been swiping the baby Jesus from his comfy cradle and stashing him beneath the removable blanket that covers the hollowed-out camel’s back. The first time he did this, he was too small to tell us what he’d done with the tiny figure; my niece thought he’d swallowed it. We looked everywhere, and he watched our efforts, likely detecting our concern. When someone finally found Jesus, safe beneath the camel’s blanket, we laughed and praised his cleverness. We retold the story. All the attention surrounding his simple child’s act bestowed it with something he hadn’t intended: meaning. And out of that meaning, my son shaped a tradition. One of many traditions to be gathered like kindling for a fire.
Part of the beauty of this season lies, for my family, in its many traditions, because these are the things we take comfort in remembering and look forward to perpetuating. Traditions are connectors, grounders, knowns. They mean “always” in our changing lives. Intuitively, we know when to discard traditions that lose their meaning or cause us pain. We keep the customs that bond us to people we love and to our histories, and we pass them like torches.
My friend Ingrid and I were born a day apart the week before Christmas. As girls, we shared delight in the happy circumstances of our friendship and our good fortune to have a ready-made celebration occurring all around us on our special days. The decorations, the lights, the music, the bustle of the holidays made our birthdays extra joyous, and we often celebrated by buying pints of ice cream at the convenience store near our homes, driving up to the top of the mountain where we lived, and watching the city lights blink below us while we spooned French vanilla against our palates and talked.
Our tradition lapsed when we each left home. We live far apart now, with kids, dogs, husbands, and responsibilities unlike any we could have imagined then. A special birthday – one of those milestone numbers – awaits Ingrid and me this year, and I have thought about driving the distance to see her, showing up at her door with a pint of vanilla, grabbing her by the arm and saying, “Let’s go. The mountain awaits our recollections.” But I know that true traditions seldom fit comfortably into spontaneity’s gay apparel.
With each passing birthday, I’ve grown used to change, and find that tradition – always accommodating – morphs with me. I may gather different tinder, but the fire still warms the hearth. What I do this year for my birthday will be forged from things I’ve always done and loved, and things I’ve never tried. I’ll still shower a white cake with a sweet snowfall of coconut and eat a slice late at night. But since I can’t have ice cream with Ingrid, I may do something new, something I’ve always wanted to do. I want to ride in a big sleigh, with fuzzy mittens on my hands and a warm yarn scarf knotted around my neck. I want to smell the wet horses harnessed in front of me and see the icicles in their ropy tails. I want to hear the bells shake out their music when the horses trot through cold, deep snow, and I want to feel the icy wind chap my skin.
I know that sleigh rides are touristy things now, that they probably carry some of the artifice of a carnival ride. But I want to go anyway, close my eyes, and transcend the anachronism. I’m hoping for a small adventure to mark the year, a thrill far short of the terror experienced by Willa Cather’s doomed bride and groom in My Antonia, whose sledge horses make a futile attempt to outrun ravenous wolves. And whether or not my safe and gentle sleigh ride becomes a tradition depends on what it ends up meaning to me.
Merry Christmas, everyone.