Carols, My Heart, and Happy Times
When I was younger, the whole of the Christmas season, from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s was a physical sensation. My family made a very big, very materialistic deal out of Christmas, but more to the point, made a kind of truce for those two months. And there was genuine, deep joy in the gift selection and giving, the decorating, and the preparation of foods. It was pretty Dickensian, and I loved it. It seems to me that every year there would be some point at which I would take an afternoon nap and wake up to a darkened room bathed in the red light of the electric candles my father always put in our windows, full of an absolute peace and orange-and-cinnamon flavored happiness.
Of course, it changed. It seems sometimes that every year since my 18thdiminution of that magic. Christmas has become, by increments, a list of things to do—usually while finishing up my semester. I’ve realized how much of the “traditional” Christmas depended on women who didn’t work outside the home and am amazed by how much of it survives, in one version or another in this world in which so few households have one adult at home to do it all.
There are still transcendent moments. The late service on Christmas Eve, coming up over the hill to find all the houses around mine lit, anything involving our daughters or grandchildren, the lights at Longwood Gardens. And the music. I have 3 different Christmas stations on Pandora and more Christmas cds than I can keep track of. I never, never tire of Handel’s Messiah, or O, Come, O Come Emmanuel, or Once in Royal David’s City or The Holly and the Ivy or pretty much any other seasonal music (there are a few of the more secular songs I find irritating—I don’t find much to rejoice in in grandmothers getting run over by reindeer or mommies smooching santas—so shoot me). The music lifts me up in all the gorgeously clichéd ways people like to blather on about. More to the point, it has been a consistent source of solace in the midst of stress, stability in the midst of a chaotic season, a way to call up those red-lit awakenings while grading portfolios or planning church decorations, or, or, or.
But this year, not so much. I’ve been listening to the music since before Thanksgiving, looking for soothing in the midst of what was a wretchedly tough fall with my mother finally winning her way home by essentially making it too miserable for too many of the family to leave her where she was, in fact, safe and cared for constantly. Basically, she had a 2 month long tantrum that left me heading into all the business of Christmas really extra very tired, so there was not much of me left to feel much of anything. Which was interesting, in its way. It turns out that the whos down in Whoville were right—“Christmas is within our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp” which ran through my head for much of the season—one of those rare moments when the song running through my head is actually meaningful.
It’s after Christmas day, but still Christmas, which it will be until Epiphany/Twelfth Night, at which point we’ll have a potluck supper at church, followed by the bonfire in the parking lot in which we ritually burn the greens from the church. It kind of drives the fire department nuts, but we’ve been doing it so long that we’re more or less grandfathered in, permit-wise. Here at home, we drag it out even longer. The tree stays up until my husband’s birthday or the beginning of Lent, whichever comes first. The outside lights stay on until Fat Tuesday. And all of that can happen no matter how long it takes me to catch up with myself again.
I’d rather there not be a lesson here—we could do the whole Whoville thing about how Christmas comes without the roast beast and presents and, in my case, much feeling. But I do think it’s a good thing that these seasons come and go—the real seasons (I’ve never really wanted to live anyplace seasonless, though I could do without much of summer here in Delaware,), and the various religious seasons. Otherwise, we’d just drift from crisis to trauma to mess to success to passage and they’d blur. I’m a girl who likes a ritual. They’re kind of the steps we’re climbing on the pilgrimage of life. If we’re lucky, we get to go up on our feet. In tough years, we do it on our knees, and some years we get stuck on one or two steps. Then the year turns, the season shifts, lights get lit, and we can say goodbye to those steps and stand or crawl up to the next ones. But that’s a metaphor, not a lesson. I don’t have any energy left for offering lessons to other people.
This year I finally caught on to the fact that one of my favorite carols, The Coventry Carol, the one that has the “Lulee, lullay, thou little tiny child…” lines—it’s pretty old, and has always seemed very beautiful to me, so lovely that I’ve managed to ignore for decades the fact that it has a verse about Herod’s murder of the innocents. I can’t even stay in a room in a museum that has a painting of that episode. Pretty much no matter how I want to look at the other paintings in the room, I can feel that painting behind me and the sorrow’s unbearable. This is one of those moments when my father would have reminded me that there is a difference between real life and art, but I’ve apparently been living with a fiction/reality demarcation deficit my whole life, and I cannot even conceive of painting those paintings. So The Coventry Carol’s pretty much done for me. Funny that that should have happened this year.
Maybe next year I’ll put red candles in all our windows.