Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas in the Country

Many years ago on a snowy day on the Canadian prairie, I was watching fat, fluffy snowflakes fall from the sky with my kids.  The Christmas tree was lit up and the house was festive and cozy with all the holiday trimmings while the outside world was a swirl of white.  The kids were excited...the anticipation of Christmas was hanging heavy in the air and the snow seemed to seal the deal.  Suddenly one of them asked me, "Mommy, did it feel like Christmas when you lived in Oregon and didn't have snow?"

"Of course," I replied right away, because I remembered it always feeling like Christmas to me when I was young.

They couldn't imagine how it that could be true.  "How?  How did it feel like Christmas if there wasn't any snow?"

"Well," I began, "we didn't have snow, but we had lots of greenery, like the kinds they sing about in Christmas carols...holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreens.  And everyone has a real Christmas tree that they cut down fresh.  Everything smells delicious...all pine-y and sweet, with spicy woodsmoke mingling in the air because lots of people have woodstoves.  And then there is the's all silvery and soft, and it hangs on the trees and clings to the mountains and makes dark days turn dreamy."

I don't know if they were even listening anymore, but I was visiting with The Ghost of Christmas Past the holidays of my youth.  We went caroling in the country. Somehow it worked there.  We had tried it in Canada, but it was too cold.  Our jaws were so frozen we could barely form the words, and people didn't want to open their doors to a group of bundled up strangers on their front porch.  But in the Oregon countryside, the weather was a little wet but not very cold.  People were actually excited to see a group of teens outside their door, and they would listen to us sing and then give us Christmas cookies before we left. 

The boys shot mistletoe out of the trees with guns, and one of my greatest longings was to be kissed under the mistletoe (which, to date, has never happened!).

We collected holly heavy with red berries and all the greens we could carry...for free!  And trees were cheap and perfect and real.

One Christmas I read the book, "Christy," and forever and ever, I picture Christmas high in the mountains where trees grow thick, creeks run deep, and cabins are built against the shelter of rocky ledges.  Where I lived on the mountain, it wasn't quite so wild, but from my bedroom window on a clear day I could see the snow-capped peaks of the five tallest mountains in the Cascade range, and on a rainy day my home would be shrouded with a misty fog that obscured even the fruit trees in front of our house.

During my 20 years in Canada, I got used to a white Christmas as well as "Christmastime in the city."  The peachy glow of street lamps reflecting off snowflakes on a snowy night was actually bright enough to wake me, giving me the coziest feeling as I would lie under the warmth of my comforter and watch through the window the falling flakes.  There is nothing like skating outdoors on a frozen lake, the perimeter strung with lights and tinny Christmas music playing over the loudspeakers.  Street hockey and sledding are sooo much fun...even as adults (and good exercise too!).  Then there were the parties...In the city, everyone dresses to the nines.  The venue, whether a home, a hotel banquet room or a golf and country club, would always be stylishly decorated, and the food was divine.  I bought all of us new Christmas outfits every year for the Christmas Banquet, and we always dressed up on Christmas Eve too.  Christmases were elegant and beautiful.

When I first moved back to Oregon it wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be to go back to my childhood holidays of greenery and simple things.  I was okay without the snow, but I really missed the parties.  Country parties are "come as you are," in blue jeans and Christmas sweaters.  No more elegant dinners, just potluck-style appetizers and fingerfoods.  No more dressing up on Christmas Eve for the girls.  No more street hockey for the boys.

But slowly, the Christmasy feeling has returned.  I love tromping through the forest to collect holly and fir boughs.  I've instituted a ladies Christmas event where we all dress up and year by year has become a more beautiful event.  And it all but takes my breath away when I behold the beauty of the mountain mist clinging to the trees and hiding the hilltops.

Whether I'm in the city or the country, the sights, sounds and scents of the holiday fill my senses.  It doesn't matter where I am...

It is Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Broken Traditions

Every family has their holiday traditions...most families have a few...and one of ours is how we, as a family, decorate.  Every year we get a real tree.  Even when we lived in Canada where artificial trees are the norm, I insisted that ours be a fragrant, real tree.  Of course, there are no Christmas tree farms in Edmonton, so we had to buy our tree out of the grocery store parking lot.  Now that we are living in Oregon, we make the trek to one of the many local tree farms in our area and select ours right out of the field, which is cut, shaken and baled that very moment and brought home sticky with sap that fills the car and house with its heady, evergreen fragrance.  The guys carry the tree into the house and help get the tree into the stand, and then they're done with holiday prep for the rest of the season!  The girls and I then take over.  My youngest daughter Kate pulls out all the boxes from storage and lines them up for me, ready to be unpacked of all their treasures.  Then she gets out the Dicken's Village.  Then she takes the little mauve mini tree and pink mini lights and goes upstairs to her room to decorate her pink room for Christmas, and she's done for the season.  Then I turn on the Christmas music and begin the solo job of putting the lights on.  People think this is the worst part of decorating a tree, but I want to do it because I'm very particular about spreading the lights just so over the branches so the tree is lit from within and without.  A great way to do this is to use icicle lights.  I've decorated a lot of trees over the own tree and our church trees every Christmas for the past 25 years...and in a different theme each year! (That's between 50 and 75 trees, because some years I've done 3 or even 4!)  I've decorated artificial and real, and I know the quirks and benefits of each.  I've also learned a few tricks...and one of the best tricks is icicle lights.  I remember when they first came out and how pretty they looked hanging from the eaves of almost every house on the block.  I bought some with the intent we'd hang them too, but my husband, who HATES hanging lights, never got around to it.  The next year when I pulled out the lights to decorate the tree, I picked up the string of unused icicle lights and I had a "lightbulb" moment...why not use them on the tree?  All those little strings that dangle off the main string could be tucked into the inner branches while the main string could circle around the tree, thus giving me the dimensional lighting I was looking for in half the time and tangle!  My mom was doubtful.  She envisioned icicle lights hanging straight down the outside of my tree and thought it would look odd.  When I was finished (in half the time!), I had her take a look and she was awed.  Years later, she called me one night and said, "Guess what?  I'm watching the home channel and they're doing a demo of hanging icicle lights on the tree!  You were ahead of your time!"  Yes, I guess I was!  I think I've had three ideas like that in my whole life...ideas where if I had capitalized on them I could have either made some money or had a small moment of fame.  But I guess I'm only smart enough to think up the idea, not market it, so that's not really very smart, is it? (Hooray for Pinterest, which gives us a steady stream of creativity when we're lacking it!  There is no longer any excuse for an ugly Christmas tree...or wedding!)  After the lights are on, my other daughter joins me and we decorate together, standing back with a critical eye to adjust until we are satisfied with the finished result.  Then we turn on the fire and turn off the room lights, and sit by the glow of Christmas light and firelight, sipping hot chocolate or coffee and eggnog, listening to music, and enjoying the true start of the season.

But this year things are a little different.

My daughter Kate is in Bosnia. (That's in Europe, used to be Yugoslavia, for those of you who need a geography and history refresher.)  This is the first time in our family's history that one member is missing for the holidays.

So, the tradition of Kate pulling the boxes out of storage was broken.  I pulled them out myself.  The tradition of Kate taking out the Dickens Village was broken.  I didn't even bother setting it up.  The tradition of a mauve mini tree with pink lights in a pink room was broken.  The mauve tree sat forlornly in the storage room, leaning to the left against the wall, and the pink room is now a boyish blue, black and brown.

I wasn't really just felt odd.  I missed her, but not mournfully so.  I thought about how she was going to celebrate Christmas so far from home, and I was excited thinking about how we would Skype while she opened the presents I had bought way back in August and stuffed into her stocking.  It was important to me to send her gifts inside her stocking, as stockings are one of our family's most treasured traditions.  I wrapped the filled stocking in brown paper, marked it "Christmas," and packed it in her suitcase.  We would have Christmas together, it would just be different.

I went back into the storage room and lifted out the little pink tree.  I set it right in the family room and decorated it in mauve, ivory and gold.  Now I see Kate's Christmas Tree every day and think of her in her cozy bedroom in Bosnia, tucked in bed under the slanted eaves of her European home while the snow falls on the mountain she lives on overlooking the beautiful city of Sarajevo.  This is just the beginning of broken traditions, I suppose.  The kids are growing up and are at various stages of nesting.  I don't know what next year will be like...or the year after that.  But one thing I do know, and that is this:  Traditions aren't about doing the same thing over and over again.  Traditions are consistent actions that convey a sense of family love and loyalty.  Although the actions themselves may change over the years, the love and loyalty remain.  I believe traditions aren't really broken, they're just reinvented.  And those traditions I intend to keep!

Kate's Christmas Tree

Kate in her snowy backyard in Sarajevo