This was our first year celebrating Christmas independently. And this year, more than any before, I tried to think about the traditions I loved most growing up, and how I could imitate (but not necessarily duplicate) them here, in my home. Mom reading The Littlest Angel and Daddy reading Dickens. Matching pajamas. A crackling fire. Pantyhose stockings. The Stingiest Man in Town playing on repeat. Oysters at Uncle Bill’s and Lamb with Mint Jelly at Uncle Charles’. Pastries and Ambrosia. The excitement of looking down at a Christmas party from the upstairs landing. My mother’s caviar tart and all the women wearing heels and golden jingle bells, tall men in ties clinking glasses.
But it was not to be. Our oranges were mealy and the logs were soaked wet from weeks of rain (not to mention the balmy weather that would make a fire truly ridiculous). Our children really only wanted to read The Grinch and at one point I vacuumed up a baby Jesus. Worst of all the one item our oldest daughter asked for- a calico kitten- died just two days after Christmas. And then everyone got strep throat. It was not so great. Oh and the aphids!
Our Christmas tree had an infestation of Giant Conifer Aphids this year. In almost 40 years of Christmas trees I have never heard of or seen such a thing. They fell in sheets from the limbs of our tree, tick-like creatures peppering our ornaments and gifts, leaving trails of honeydew on the felt skirt and wood floors as I swept them up daily along with the pine needles. It was at first alarming, then a nuisance, and towards the end almost morbid, their ashen exoskeletons literally everywhere.
This morning I dedicated myself to the sad task of packing up Christmas and found that the ordeal with the aphids had damaged several of the ornaments beyond repair. A few were from the house on Stanislaus. Most notably an old yarn doll. She rested on boughs deep in those magnificent 15 foot firs and surely saw the lights of a hundred trees before making her way to me in a floral cardboard box marked: “Little Betty Sweet- Christmas”. Her poor fate. Handled so gently for so many years but today, she was so thoroughly covered in sap I had no choice but to let her go.
It brought to mind something that I have discussed with my family on several occasions as we have gone through boxes and boxes of handed-down holiday paraphernalia: How can I make room for what is new and mine when everything old and theirs is so important?
And some of it really is:
Grace and Baby’s Christmas balls. I have exactly 13 of them. Each made with purpose and precision by their dainty hands. Styrofoam, velvet, sequins and pins. Plastic beads of all shapes and sizes. The one with the blue flowers: it hung from the brass chandelier for 12 years before it was wrapped in tissue and a Radar’s box and given to me on my 13th birthday.
The “Merry Christmas” signs my mom and dad hand made in 1987. They must have spent half the year in the garage. I can still hear his band saw, see the pile of injured letters. My mother so carefully painted the good ones. I have the one they gave to my grandparents and it is arguably my most prized possession.
And of course just about every decoration my children have made in preschool and Kindergarten. Most involving handprints.
And all the other stuff? Well, somewhere between the insects and the kitten and a general feeling of falling short, I came to this conclusion: there are the things that matter most, and those we hang a little higher and pack with more precaution. The rest of it is where you make the room.
Sometimes there is family and champagne and singing (and dancing and lights and music and joy) but sometimes it’s just fog and empty roads. Sometimes it’s just you. And maybe an army of dead aphids. We are incessantly urged to press meaning into the minutes of our lives. But this Christmas I found more than a little relief realizing that it is okay to let some moments (and things) go. That not every second of life needs to be memorable, worthy of a soundtrack and a story. It’s okay to be a little mindless now and then, to get lost in the white noise of each day. To dry my hair and make-up beds and empty the trash(even on Christmas Day) and then look up from these perfectly droll routines and get back to the business of a life less ordinary.
To find peace in these plateaus and enjoy the in-between where there are no opposites…because it is in this exquisitely neutral pause that the new and ours finds its way in.
And just like that, the loveliest things that happened to us this Christmas were the things we hadn’t planned at all.
In our box: Everything that didn’t have sap on it plus or minus a thousand aphid carcasses. 2 out of 5 snow globes (6 if I count the one the baby threw on the floor at the Dollar Tree). A voucher from Pet Helpers for a free kitten adoption. Kind invitations and foie gras with neighbors. The hand cut notes on all the packages, written hastily at midnight, but not without humor and approximate rhyme. The decorations I glued back together as best I could; tokens of our mishap. The clear memory of our walk down a foggy pier on a warm winter night, the sweet and sour taste of a good wheat beer and that little red ladybug on the moulding just behind the tree, who seemed singly and simply content. Whatever her story may be.