December. Hanukkah starts tonight, and it’s a little more than a week until the Solstice, less than two until Christmas. Darkness draws in ever closer. The gentle black nights stretch longer and longer until they snap.
The turning of the year.
I love December. No matter what may be happening in my life to make me sad, or anxious, or depressed, the sharp chill beauty of the of the dying leaves drifting to the ground, or even those that straggle on, holding to the branches as though by doing so they would be reanimated, affects me, layering sharp keen joy over pain and disappointment.
The traditions: the expedition to get the Christmas tree. I don’t know when we started this, but for at least three decades the Rocket Scientist and I and whatever family members are available head off into the woods (okay, whatever tree farm we’re going to that year) to find and cut the elusive perfect tree. We never find it, of course: like everything else in life, perfection is not possible, or even desirable. This year, although Rail Fan could have taken a break from studying for his statistics final and joined us, the Rocket Scientist and I went forth and got the tree ourselves. We did so because my ancient van would have had trouble heading over the hill to Half Moon Bay. We took his (elderly but still spry) convertible, sitting the tree up in the back. As we drove home, the Rocket Scientist observed that this was a very Californian thing to do.
The night we decorate the tree we have chili for dinner. I know exactly where this tradition started. The Rocket Scientist’s family always had chili the night they decorated the tree. This is a good time of year for hand-me-downs.
The tree always enchants the cats. Penwiper in particular loves looking at the lights. The shot of her in the tree on my sidebar is my favorite picture of her.
Other things: the crèche and Elvis. Although the stable itself is a battered relic of the mid-eighties, the figures in the crèche are beautiful, sent to us by my sister, who is devout in the best way. Elvis is ten years old now, and showing some wear, mainly because his malachite needles trap dust like nobody’s business.
The Rocket Scientist’s family also sits and sings Christmas carols on Christmas Eve. We don’t do so except when we’re with them, mainly because at that time in the evening the Rocket Scientist and I are getting ready for midnight services. The last few years we have gone to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, which means an extra hour getting there. It is stunningly beautiful and moving and joyful.
Back East, we attend a local church, and have for years. Midnight mass is a tradition from my side of the family. Everyone would go, except sometimes my Mom, who was a nurse and sometimes had to work Christmas. Sadly, this tradition will die with me, I suspect.
One year, when we had only been married a year, before we moved to California and before law school and children, the Rocket Scientist and I attended the church in downtown Atlanta where my parents had been married. In his homily, the priest criticized the city council for not taking enough care for the homeless and poor when they made decisions. (Although it seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhat in recent years, the Roman Catholic Church once placed great store in economic justice and caring for the poor. When I was a teenager, our youth group took a field trip to a migrant labor camp, and then discussed how we could help the field workers. I owe my belief of the value and dignity of human beings and that we need to take care of all people I to an upbringing that called me to recognize our common humanity. As wrong as I think they are on LGTB+ rights, and women priests, and abortion, I find it difficult to think of the Roman Catholic church as being irredeemable. ) Beautifully, as we left, snow flurries began. White Christmases are rare in Georgia, and this wasn’t one, but even flurries are wonderful.
Lessons and Carols: for those who are not Episcopalian or Roman Catholic, Lessons and Carols presents the story of God’s convenant with God’s people, from the Creation of Man to the birth of Christ. Lessons and Carols is usually held sometime during Advent (the four weeks before Christmas). I love Lessons and Carols more than any other service of the liturgical year, saving Easter Vigil. True confession: years ago when I was lector coordinator at the church I was attending, I would assign myself a reading from Isaiah. I would not assign myself the Magnificat, one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the Christian Bible, because by tradition that always went to a pregnant woman. I did read it once, when I was expecting the Red-Headed Menace.
One year, I was blessed enough to witness Lessons and Carols in Westminster Abbey. The boy choir sounded like angels.
Some traditions die over time. This year I stopped buying new ornaments. Before, every year, I would buy one new ornament for every person in the household. We are a surprisingly careful household when it comes to Christmas trees — if nothing else – and we have not broken enough ornaments to free up space for new ones. I strongly suspect that, barring disaster, the ornaments I bought from Yellowstone and Grand Tetons will be the last.
When I was both more faithful and more observant, we used to have an Advent wreath. We haven’t had one for years, but I still miss it, a vague ache of memory. That, too, was a tradition from my family, most especially my mother. Christmas is when I miss Mom the most, and I cried when I hung the angel ornament that I had brought home from her funeral.
Even more than tradition, though, December means lights.
Hanukkah, of course: I am not Jewish, but the Resident Shrink is, and our family has traditions. She has a menorah that belonged to her grandmother, which makes me spend eight days being afraid it will get knocked over and broken. She holds a Latke Party (mmmm…. latkes) on the second or third night. And I, bad as I am at remembering to get anybody anything for any reason whatsoever, always get her a present for at least one night: I drive to Casa de Fruta and get chocolate covered cherries and, until they discontinued them, chocolate covered apricots.
The journey is important. Somehow the effort makes the gift more meaningful; to the giver if not to the recipient. Things you have to work for matter more than things you can order off of Amazon.
More than Hanukkah, however, December means Christmas lights, both on Christmas trees and on houses. The month finds me driving aimlessly around neighborhoods that would call the cops if I did that any other time of year. (If you live in the South Bay, and have not been to San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood, you’re missing something. They have ten-foot high reindeer!) Part of me frowns inside – climate change really is a thing – but my inner child smiles happily.
Abbot Suger once said that light elevated the soul and brought one closer to God. He was talking about natural light of course, it being the 13th century, but for me the same holds true of twinkly blue, red, and green lights strung from the eves, and huge lighted snowflakes strung across the street, and wreaths with fake candles hung on the doors.
I know that part of the reason that Christmas lights are special is that they go away in early January, not to come out again until November. Scarcity creates desire. But I also just delight in the nights – as much as I love the long nights of winter – being broken by color and light, and that so many people seem to enjoy them. A sign of common humanity, I suppose.
At any rate, although since I live in California I can’t necessarily wish you a White Christmas (which I think are terribly overrated in any case), I can hope that you have a Happy Hanukkah, a joyful Solstice, and a very Merry Christmas.
Season’s Greetings, everyone.