Slowly but surely, things around here are becoming more and more Christmas-y.
We aren’t, by and large, the type to make a huge honking deal out of holidays (see my last post, and all the non-hoopla surrounding my recent birthday). We like them, make no mistake — but our ardor stays fairly low-key. In my family, Christmas was never that big an operation — especially after my parents’ divorce, since I was living with Mom and we’d always spent the day with Dad’s family. (Still did for several years after, until she and I and my brother basically got fed up with them and decided to do something else that day.) Among Nina’s relatives, it’s usually a quiet family time … with the notable exception of one aunt who I think goes into five figures annually on Yuletide decorations, entertainment, food and a lighting display that I don’t think is actually visible from orbit, but I make no guarantees. Said aunt has fun doing it, though, and we wouldn’t have her any other way. But she is the exception.
Still, we do have some things we like to do around this time of year. And so, if you’re interested, come on in and join us for a few of the Christmas traditions around Chez Anselmo. Here, have some hot cocoa. I’d take your coat, but we still don’t have central heating, so you might want to keep it on …
One rule we always abide by here: the Christmas season does NOT start until the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas is supposed to be a special time, and if you spread it over three or four whole months it stops being special and starts becoming tedious. It’s one of those areas in life where moderation is essential. So nothing Christmas-related happens before that last Friday in November, or after Epiphany on January 6 (an Episcopalian tradition — thanks, Mom). No Christmas music, no candy canes, no halls being decked, nothing.
With one exception …
Ever since our first Christmas as husband and wife, Nina and I have done all our Christmas shopping in October or early November. Neither of us like the process of shopping that much — Nina because her CMT makes fighting through mall crowds difficult, me because I just don’t like being in crowds. What we do like is getting just the right gift for someone, and seeing their eyes light up (or reading their thank-you e-mail) after they open it.
So instead of playing “Wreck the Malls” on Black Friday or whenever, we would save up the mail-order catalogs, order from them before Veterans Day and beat the rush entirely. Nowadays, we skip the catalogs and just hit Amazon.com (a natural choice for us, since we both consider books the ideal gifts). By Thanksgiving, we’re done with that and can enjoy the season, blithely ignoring the commercial bustle.
That’s changed slightly in the past couple of years, though, because now we have a third Christmas shopper in the household: Charlotte, our 9-year-old daughter. Beginning in October, she starts doing odd jobs around the house like sweeping leaves off the driveway and taking out the garbage, to earn money for Christmas presents. (Nina and I have promised to give her an allowance as soon as both of us have paying jobs. Gosh, I hope that happens before she completes high school …) This year, she’s likely to have over $40 to spend, and we’re already planning a mall run with her on the 21st, part of a day on the town that’ll also include a showing of Tron: Legacy. Wonder what she’ll get me …
No matter how poor we’ve been in some years, one thing Nina and I have never skimped on is the Christmas tree. No Charlie Brown-sized tree for us, no potted plant, and by all that is right and holy NO PLASTIC! In the house where we used to live (we rented 60% of the first floor in a subdivided Victorian, including the original entryway/foyer), we had 11-foot ceilings and took full advantage — we’d plunk down $50-60 for a nine-foot Douglas fir. Of course, we also didn’t yet have kids who were mobile enough to grab a nine-foot Douglas fir and pull it down on themselves … anyway, when we moved to our current location, we still had high ceilings, but we also had a 2½-year-old Charlotte, so we needed another plan.
The plan came to us when a friend of ours moved back East and left us with some of his furniture, including an end table/cabinet, about two feet high, that we now keep our board games in. But from mid-December to early January, it’s also the support for our tree stand, holding a seven-foot Douglas fir at a high enough level to keep toddlers from bringing it down on their heads too easily. Granted, we don’t have toddlers anymore, but the system still works for us, and a seven-footer only costs $20-25, so why mess with a good thing?
(Side note: we always get Douglas firs. It’s the rich smell that does us in, every year. Granted, a Douglas is a little scruffier-looking than some other kinds, but who cares, you’re covering it with ornaments, tinsel and lights anyway, right? One of my favorite things in this season is to come home from some errand, make a beeline for the tree, stick my face in the branches and inhale. Aaaaaaahhhh …)
For this, a system. Or to be more precise, a calendar:
- December 10-16 (basically, the Friday after the 2nd Wednesday in December, if that helps) — buy the tree and put it in the stand.
- December 11-17 (the next day, Saturday) — decorate the tree and put out the shelf ornaments, nativity scenes (one for display, two for the kids to play with) and all the music boxes and knickknacks Nina’s aunt has given us over the years. Oh, and put some water in the stand.
- December 24 — put the wrapped presents under the tree, AFTER Charlotte and Sean are asleep. We never did the Santa Claus thing — our kids know precisely where their gifts come from! — but it’s still a fun surprise for them. And before we put them out, we re-water the tree.
- December 25 — open the presents. No, we don’t open one on Christmas Eve or any of that jazz. Again, the more you spread something out, the less special it becomes.
- January 6, Epiphany — the tree goes out to the curb for pickup by the trash company. (Where I grew up, we used to haul it to the Episcopal Church for a good-old-fashioned English bonfire. What that had to do with the arrival of the Magi to see the baby Jesus was never explained, alas.)
This year, we’re making two deviations. First, the Saturday we’d usually decorate the tree/house was the same day as Nina’s CMT support group meeting in Sacramento, so we spent the afternoon up there — Nina at her meeting, me and the kids at the Sacramento Zoo — and the rest of the weekend too tired to do anything but get the lights on the tree. (We did the rest today.) The other is that January 6 lands on a Thursday, which is trash pickup day in our neighborhood, so we’ll put the tree out on the 5th. No bonfire, either — I’m pretty sure the city would crack on us for that.
Here’s where it gets a little tough for me. Because I’m on a low-carb diet right now — which is going pretty well — and Nina is a very good Christmas baker. Her specialty is soft gingerbread cookies, which are the envy of everyone who’s ever tasted one. She’s already done two batches this season, with at least one more planned. Thankfully, “low-carb” doesn’t mean “no-carb,” so I can have one or two — but the yeoman’s work of eating them is now left to Charlotte. I can say with some authority that she’s proving herself up to the task.
Since Christmas was a pretty amorphous affair for my family after we stopped worrying about what Dad and his relations were doing (see above), it was natural for Nina and I to drive to San Jose on Christmas Day and spend it with her parents. That got shook up in the last few years, due to ongoing renovations at my in-laws’ house and Sean’s contraction of Leigh’s disease, but this year we’re getting back on track. We’re still working out the details — when do they want us to arrive, how much food should we bring, which presents do we open there vs. at home — but we have a couple of weeks, so I’m not worried. Regardless of what happens, it’ll be better than my childhood memories of my father’s annual chess/screaming match with Uncle Ron. We’re all looking forward to a nice, relaxed Christmas Day.
Of course, Nina’s aunt might show up dressed as “Mrs. Claus” again, and if that happens all bets are off …
Still, we are mindful that the whole point is not the presents, the decor, the food, or even the relatives — except for God the Father and His uniquely begotten Son. They are the point … and no Christmas would be right without re-reading the original story. The last two Sundays (and the next two) we’ve been going back through the Bible are recalling the miracle of God coming in the form of a helpless infant, of the prophecies that pointed to the event from Eden through Isaiah and Micah to the birth itself, reliving why the celebration is worth celebrating. Really, why anything is worth celebrating. Because without the Incarnation, there’s no way for man to reconnect with God — and without that connection, what joy is there?
So no matter what, we drop in on Zachariah hoping to get Gabriel to put his promise in writing; on Mary singing her great hymn in Elizabeth’s doorway; on Joseph being persuaded by a dream to tear up his “Dear Mary” letter; on the expecting couple wandering dirt roads trying to find somewhere, anywhere in a callous world to go through labor pains with at least a little dignity; on people with little education, little resources, and a mountain of faith balanced on that one tiny hope in Isaiah:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Immanuel — “God with us.” Because He is with us, and us with Him, this is a special time of year. And I never want to be doing so much during this time of year that I forget about that.