'Tis the season to be jolly, and jolly it most certainly is.
I love everything about the month of December. The bitter cold, plenty of snow, hearing the plows out working all night long, sending cards across the country, baking cookies for the Maune Annual Cookie Exchange (how many dozen, Patty?), connecting with dear friends, neighbors and celebrating the spirit and magic of Christmas with family.
The tradition begins with choosing the freshest tree from Oney's Tree Farm in Woodstock, Ill. Our daughter and son-in law have graciously taken over the task to help chose the perfect beauty to grace the living room for the next five weeks. The pine fragrance spreads like a forest through the house and rekindles memories from childhood. My husband, the Christmas tree "consultant," ties up wavering branches with fishing wire to create a perfectly shaped silhouette, just like he learned from his dad.
No. Never an artificial tree.
Boxes come down the attic stairs to signal it's time to open up our family history. Keepsake ornaments that our children made in pre-school, Santas in red and brown suits, stockings to hang by the fireplace, snowmen and needlepoint pillows. Boughs of cedar and pine soften the mantle with a sprinkling of winterberries. Silver glass balls, baubles and beads add sparkle and reflect the colored lights in the tree.
Our traditions include books, music and movies.
It wouldn't be December without watching "Love Actually," "Miracle on 34th Street," (the original from 1947, never the remake and every time Kris speaks Dutch to the orphan girl I lose it). "White Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," and my favorite of all, "It's a Wonderful Life." I still cry every time George Bailey realizes how great a life he really does have with the help of his guardian angel and still get furious with Mr. Potter for not letting Uncle Billy know the missing cash was wrapped in the newspaper all along. Atta boy, Clarence. You finally got your wings. And George, you really are the richest man in town.
No, "A Christmas Story" never appealed to our family. I know we are in the minority, but that's just the way it is, leg lamp and all.
We never tire of Christmas music and can't decorate the tree or write a single Christmas card without it playing softly in the background. Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Mannheim Steamroller and Bing Crosby remind us to hark with the angels, give the gift of seven swans a swimming, roast chestnuts, dream of a white Christmas and ring and jingle our silver bells. I can't listen to "I'll be Home for Christmas" without thinking of our men and women in uniform.
Eartha Kitt should be the only performer legally allowed to sing "Santa Baby." Nobody does it better than her gold standard. Madonna ruined the song with her childish whimpers. Ouch! Why did I even bring that up? Now I can't get her rendition out of my head. And no, I don't believe "Baby it's Cold Outside" glorifies date rape. I think millennials are creating a big stir over nothing. But I'm old and have better things to complain and rumble about than a 1940's tune sung by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer. He just made her a really strong drink that she never finished. No drugs were involved and we don't know how the evening ends, so get over it.
Beloved Christmas books come off the top of the bookshelves and on to the coffee table for reading the 2,847th time. It wouldn't be Christmas without the treasured words of "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote, "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore and "Giant Grummer's Christmas" by William Dana Street, limburger cheese and all. (Thanks, Dad!).
Our traditions include "Brunch under the Christmas Tree," lighting luminaria along our street on Christmas Eve and giving to my favorite charity, the Salvation Army's red kettle. Mass at Holy Name Cathedral even though we are no longer church goers, feeding carrots to the horses at the barn, driving past the Gumdrop Tree in town whenever possible and time for quiet reflection and gratitude. Eyes become a bit misty remembering lost loved ones, Grandma Bessie's Nativity plays, Grandpa Dillon's Christmas vest and Aunt Margaret's Waldorf salad.
I was raised in a loving home that made Christmas the BEST holiday to celebrate and that we did, from Thanksgiving until the last pine needle was vacuumed from the living room carpet after the Feast of the Epiphany. (It's a Catholic thing). Thank you Boo and Toots for such incredible memories full of turkey, roaring fires in the fireplace, singing along with Mitch, Midnight Mass, Marshall Field's on State Street, the red and green welcome light at the front door, opening our home to family, friends and neighbors, bubble lights, the four sisters posing in matching flannel nightgowns, spritz cookies and "nougats" all wrapped up in a giant box of pure love. When I think of Christmas, you are at the top of my "Thought List" hands down.
Remember, gifts are NOT important. No one will remember the gift you gave them by February 5th. What they will remember was you gave Aunt Sarah a call, sent a thoughtful card to Bob, invited Todd and Marge for a home-cooked meal or simply took the time to let people know they are important to you. Shared experiences are better than anything you find beneath the candy cane giftwrap and red bow.
Do donate toys for kids in need. No child should wake up on Christmas morning without something to open. Santa lives everywhere, not just at the North Pole.
We created new traditions and kept the essence of the old when my husband and I had a family of our own. Now our adult children are creating their own traditions with their spouses but also incorporating those from their past into the present. Families evolve, change, let go of things that no longer are working and embrace new ideas that take their place. One year we didn't even have Christmas dinner. Instead we bundled up and took a hayride through a farm to see a holiday light show under the moonlit winter sky. We ate our planned dinner the next day and no one complained. No rigid rules for this clan.
Late at night, my husband and I will turn off all the lights except for the Christmas tree. We will sit in the glow of the colored lights, drink a glass of Grand Marnier and quietly say, "This is the most beautiful Christmas we've ever had!" It happens every December. It's Christmas. And nothing else makes me appreciate how joyous this "Season of Giving" truly is. And how blessed we are to be able to celebrate once again. It only comes once a year, but it's message should last forever.