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Of Christmases, Past and Present

Bill Meredith

The gentle journey jars to stop; the drifting dream is done,
And now we'll walk as men have walked through years not yet begun.
For Christmas is a life-long hope, and hope the stuff of years…
The gentle journey wanders on, through laughter, love and tears.
…Walt Kelly

When I was four, December was the longest month of the year; days passed, but Christmas seemed to hover somewhere out in the future and get no closer. Over the ensuing 70 years, something happened to time; now it speeds up in December, and as I write this we are racing toward the year's end at Mach speed. Everyone knows the days get shorter until the solstice, but this year the hours are getting shorter too.

On my personal calendar, winter begins with the first snow, and this year it came on December 5. While I was eating breakfast and watching the bird feeder outside the kitchen window, big fluffy flakes started falling, and they kept coming until it was six inches deep. New snow always brings the birds in; I counted 22 species through the window, including a flock of geese that flew over. A young sharp-shinned hawk screeched to a halt just before hitting the window and perched on top of the feeder, watching in exasperation as the sparrows and juncos disappeared into the shrubbery. The winter birds that had been slow to arrive came all at once… a fox sparrow, pausing for lunch on its way farther south, white-crowned sparrows in their best party feathers, and purple finches that looked like they had been dipped in raspberry juice, just as Roger Tory Peterson said they would. There was a red-breasted nuthatch, so unaccustomed to humans that it pecked calmly at the suet cake while I shoveled the sidewalk three feet from it. The whole scene was like those Christmas cards we used to get where you look through the window at birds of every color against a pure white background, with hints of greenery showing. For a little while the world was clean and peaceful again, and you almost expected to see a horse-drawn sleigh gliding down Lincoln Avenue. In such a setting, even an ecologist could not concentrate on population problems, global warming, pollution and extinction; instead, my mind drifted back to Christmases Past.

There were no artificial trees then, so everyone had a live tree, and you couldn't decorate it more than two weeks before The Day because the needles would fall off if you put it up it too early. Decorating was a ritual. The tree had to be turned around several times until everyone agreed that the best side was showing, and then it had to be set perfectly straight in the corner; the tiniest deviation from vertical was not allowed. Strings of lights were put on first. All of the bulbs had been working the year before, but somehow several of them always seemed to burn out while they were stored in the attic, and it would take an hour or more to find which ones were bad. A reflector made of colored aluminum foil or celluloid was mounted behind each bulb; fingers would get burned while putting the reflectors on, and often a fuse would be blown, so that was all adult work. Next, decorations that had been in the family for generations were taken carefully from ancient cardboard boxes and hung on the tree. Most of them were simple blown-glass balls, but some were in the form of fruits or pine cones; we kids were allowed to hang a few of the less fragile ones, under close supervision. Finally, everyone hung "icicles," thin ribbons of aluminum foil that could not be just tossed on the branches in clumps but had to be placed individually. The whole operation took all day, but there were no TV programs to distract us and no one seemed to be in a hurry.

Each family's decorations were its own tradition. There were always window lights, usually a row of electric candles or a single candle in a red wreath; we were warned repeatedly to be careful and not knock them over. Grandma Brown had a small tree with only blue lights and silver reflectors, and a small number of very old decorations; her house was old and drafty, and the tree looked as if it were cold. Grandma Meredith had a big tree with red, green and yellow bulbs (no blue ones). Our tree was of medium size, with every color of lights we could find; under it was a railroad track, and a train whose engine had to be wound up (we got a real electric train when I was about 5). Each of the trees had a single white star at the top, and each had a nativity scene of venerable age and varied description. We knew what they all meant, because the stories of the Wise Men, the shepherds, and the birth of Jesus in the stable were read to us over and over at bedtime during Advent, sometimes in storybook fashion and sometimes in King James English.

We lived beside Grandma Brown, and always spent Christmas Eve with her. Once, before I was born, Santa Claus had brought my older sister's presents while she was up at Grandma's, and I always watched our house to see if he would come early again, but he never did. We always had Christmas dinner at Grandma Meredith's, and it was more fun; Santa had already brought our toys, and there were lots of cousins to play with as well. After dinner, everyone sat by the fire in the living room and listened to Dickens' "Christmas Carol" on the radio, with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge. Everyone would remark what a great actor he was, but I knew the story by heart and he sounded to me like he was acting. But Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and Marley's Ghost were real enough to make up for it.

Time has passed. I am now the grandparent, the tree is artificial, and Lionel Barrymore has been replaced by "Wonderful Life' and "Miracle on 34th Street." But tradition persists; there will be a fire in the hearth, stockings are still hung, everyone will eat too much, and some of the antique decorations from my parents' tree will grace my children's trees. We adapt.

I value traditions; they remind me of what is important in life, and they provide a sense of order in a hectic, confusing world. One of my own Christmas traditions is to recall the verse from Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip, as I have done before in this column. Life is a journey, and Christmas is one of the stops we make in it each year. Whether you are a Christian, of some other faith, or no faith at all, Christmas cannot be ignored; perhaps that is the one benefit of its commercialization. Whether you journey through life as a Doctor, Lawyer or Indian Chief, an ecologist or an oil baron, a believer or not, your journey must stop at this time for at least one day. So while you pause, let me send you these wishes. May you spend some time thinking of the purpose of the day, remembering that grace can come to you no matter what you believe. May you remember that the whole thing started with the birth of a child, so if there are children around, spend some time helping them build their own traditions. And when you resume your walk through the year not yet begun, may you find some gentle days in it. Merry Christmas.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith