Christmas


I have decided that, regardless of the difficulties involved, I will have a merry Christmas. In order to encourage this, I have compiled a small list of things that I particularly enjoy about this time of year. I thought I’d share it as a small blogging Christmas present from me to you. May it help you be happy too!

Bernadette’s List Of Christmas Cheer

  1. Fresh pine. The first year my sister was in college while she was studying for finals she happened to watch an episode of Martha Stewart Living that showed making fresh pine garlands. As soon as she got home she went on a scavenging expedition all over the neighborhood surreptitiously gathering evergreen branches. She spread them out on sheets laid on the living room floor and turned the heaps of branches into wreaths and swags and sprays for the windows. They were beautiful, and they made the whole house smell so good. Today at the grocery store I picked up a fresh pine spray and took a deep breath. It smelled like Christmas.
  2. Roses. The first Christmas that I lived with my grandmother roses happened to be dirt cheap. I love roses more than almost anything, so I bought dozens and dozens, filling the house with them. They were in big vases on the dining room table, in little vases in the bathrooms, in pitchers in the bedrooms, with single blooms in bud vases tucked wherever there was space. I loved it so much that I made it my personal Bernadette Christmas tradition to have roses ever since. Things have been so disorienting that I almost forgot this year. Then today I walked into Meijer’s to do some last minute grocery shopping. The flower stand was by the door, full of roses as usual, and I remembered. It’s Christmas. I need roses. So I got some. I could only afford one dozen, but they look beautiful in the large vase to put by the nativity set and a little one for my bedroom. If I have roses, then it must be really Christmas.
  3. Pomegranates. Every year I watch and wait for the pomegranates to arrive. They’re one of the few foods you can’t easily get year round. Now the season is a couple of months beginning in November, but back in the day you were lucky to find them during just a few weeks in December. They were expensive, so my parents would buy just one for all of us to share. We carefully peeled back the red, leathery skin, revealing the seeds like jewels nestled inside. We broke the sections apart and portioned them out between us, careful to make each share exactly equal. I would eat the seeds one by one, feeling the burst of sweet tart juice on my tongue. They’re still one of my favorite fruits. Besides tasting good, they’re so beautiful. It’s like eating garnets. Plus they’re romantic. In the Song of Songs (the sexy part of the Bible), when the groom is praising the bride’s beauty, he tells her, “Your lips are like a scarlet thread; your mouth is lovely. Your cheek is like a half-pomegranate behind your veil.” (Song of Songs 4:3) It’s a wonderful thing.
  4. The Messiah by Handel. When I was growing up this was one of the things my mom would put on while she was working in the afternoons. Most people only know the Halleluia Chorus, but we were used to listening to it all the way through. I know it so well it’s almost seeped into my subconscious. The strings in Thou Didst Not Leave His Soul In Hell, the trumpet aria in The Trumpet Shall Sound, the fierce choral parts in But Thanks Be To God. I think I could sing along to it before I could understand the words. The parts I love the best are actually all from the section about Christ’s death and resurrection, but somehow it’s still associated with this time of year. I was listening to it as I drove around today. It felt like home.
  5. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I love that song. When I was growing up, during Advent before dinner every night we would turn out all the lights, light the Advent wreathe, and sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We’re a musical family, so often it would be multiple verses in four (or five or six) part harmony. I know there were nights that I couldn’t stand it, nights when I really, really didn’t want to hold my sibling’s hand and sing. When I look back, however, all I can seem to remember is my family gathered warmly together in the glow of the candlelight and the song rising from our hearts to God’s.

That’s what I have so far. Merry Christmas!!!!

Jenny called me Sunday night. Her mother is dead. She called me about an hour after it happened. This was not unexpected. A year ago this Christmas Eve Shelly was diagnosed with liver cancer. At the time I had been living with them a little over three years, first as Jenny’s nanny,  then as a roommate.  I helped raise Jenny, but she was never like my daughter, more like a favorite niece whom you spoil and scold and expect much from.  My relationship with Shelly had always been more ambiguous.  She trusted me and relied on me, but we were never really friends. We lived in the same house, but somehow we never got past firm acquaintances. And now she’s dead.

I still remember the shock of Christmas Eve. A week before she’d seemed fine, if a little under the weather. She had a cold she couldn’t seem to kick, but that was all. We’d all been supposed to go cut a Christmas tree together, but then both Jenny and I got pulled away by other commitments. So Shelly had gone out and done it herself. She was like that. Then she threw up at work, and for some reason her doctor ordered a CAT scan. It showed a mass in her liver. The biopsy came back cancer.

And then it was Christmas. On Christmas Eve I watched Shelly and Jenny baking their family’s traditional Christmas breads. Jenny was doing most of the work while Shelly bossed from the other side of the island. I saw something in the way Shelly watched Jenny, an anxiety that Jenny really know and understand what she was doing. I saw a mother saying good-bye to her daughter, passing on the generational knowledge she would need as an adult. I knew then, though I didn’t want to know, though I wouldn’t let myself know for months.

We were pretending everything was going to be fine, celebrating while we waited for the oncologist’s office to open again after the holidays. The only real treatment was surgery, and the surgeon she needed to see was in Texas. She left the day after New Year’s, and just as quickly she was back again. The tumor was already too big. The only hope was chemotherapy, and pray that it would shrink. It didn’t. And here we are, not even a year later, and Shelly’s gone.

What do you say to a girl an hour after her mother’s death? What comfort is there in words? Do you say, “It’ll be ok.” No. There is no ok here. There won’t be for a long time. Do you say things about “God’s will,” and “a better place?” As true as those may be, when death is so fresh they sound like obscenity. Platitudes are useless here.  In the face of death, sometimes there are no words to say.

The other night I was talking with Jenn, who launched into her list of Christmas cookies. There’s the standard cutouts, and chocolate pretzels, and Russian tea balls, (which gets amended to Russian tea cakes with a look at Mark, her husband, who just can’t resist going there with his dirty mind), and Lord knows what else. She has peanut butter dough and gingerbread dough and sugar cookie dough, and then there’s the plans for when she’ll get each kind made, and how she’ll arrange the platters and who she’ll give them to. Her associates at work each get one, and then there’s family, and… yeah, like that.

I remember when that was me. I would be reading the food and housekeeping magazines, with their feature stories on cookies and families who make lots and lots of cookies in a heartwarming and family spirited sort of way. There are gorgeous pictures of these cookies, arranged tastefully and appetizingly in ways that just scream, “Omigosh, the person who made these is amazing!” (No, really! They do!) I would clip recipes and make shopping lists for ingredients and garnishes. I planned out days and baked accordingly. There were some memorable cookies in those years. I particularly remember the chocolate sandwich cookies with Bailey’s Irish Cream flavored filling. And then there was the year of the gingerbread people. I baked bazillions of them, icing them to resemble various members of the family, and hung them up as an edible part of the Christmas decorations. Of course, it was one of those unpredictable southern Ohio Christmases. Somehow we got a spell of humidity, which softened the gingerbread, making them slowly start to fall off their hangers. This meant we had to eat them quick before they fell. I still have the recipe somewhere, along with the one for little gingerbread mice with black licorice tails (too insanely cute) that I just never got around to making.

Then I went back to school, and the first weeks of December became irretrievably associated with exams instead of Christmas preparation. I’m all good with the holiday fun up through Thanksgiving, and then life becomes a blur of final projects, final papers, and tests on books that, oh yeah, I might want to actually read. The holiday hype buildup becomes reduced to vaguely noticing the Christmas songs playing at the grocery store as I’m blearily stocking up on necessities before another all night study session. In my world, school is all there is. People keep inviting me to Christmas parties (I have four this weekend alone), and I think to myself, don’t you people realize it’s exam week? I become very grateful for the liturgical season of Advent, which gives me a good reason not to be thinking about this stuff right now. I’ll do that later. When exams are over, and it’s actually Christmas.

I’ve been thinking about Christmas a lot lately. It’s fun to do it now, before the marketing push completely starts up, before the pressure hits, before there’s any urgency to actually do anything about it. It’s all anticipation at this point, no stress or anxiety. No one is blaring Christmas songs in my ears or strictly enforcing the Christmas “cheer.” This is when thinking about Christmas is easy. I like it.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about presents, what I’m going to give which people. (Don’t worry – no spoilers.) This requires some ingenuity because I am more than usually poor this year (I’m your stereotypical Impoverished Student, although I no longer live in an attic garret). The gift I’m most excited about right now is for Uncle Greg. My extended family draws names each year, and I was delighted to get him because he’s one of my favorite uncles. One thing he likes is being introduced to new music, so I decided to make him a set of CDs containing music that I was introduced to or love because it’s music I dance to. I’ll have one CD each for Lindy, Charleston, Balboa, and Westie. The main difficulty is separating out the Charleston and Balboa songs. Although some songs are clearly one or the other, too many could easily go either way, depending on your mood or the types/number of leads available. I’m still working on the playlists for each one, but my rough drafts look something like this:

Lindy
Baby Workout by Jackie Wilson
Movin’ and Groovin’ by Sam Cooke
Smooth Sailing by Ella Fitzgerald
Massachusetts by Gene Krupa
Up A Lazy River by Michael Buble
Jersey Bounce by Ella Fitzgerald
Love Me Or Leave Me by Sammy Davis Jr.
Bop Ting a Ling by Laverne Baker

Charleston
I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate by Madeleine Peyroux
Ballin’ The Jack by Eddie Condon
12th Street Rag by Sidney Bechet
When The Saints Go Marching In by Louis Armstrong

Balboa
Juicy by Better Than Ezra
Honeysuckle Rose by Count Basie
Crazy Baby by Louis Jordan and His Tympani 5
The Sheik of Araby by Sidney Bechet
Buzz, Buzz, Buzz by Jimmie Lunceford

West Coast
Ain’t No Sunshine by Al Green
Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Blue & Stevie Wonder
Be Bop A Lula by Gene Vincent
Buttons by The Pussycat Dolls
Early To Bed by Morphine
Boombastic by Shaggy
Born Under A Bad Sign by Etta James

I think he’ll like it.

I just got home from our annual Family Christmas Planning Brunch. Thank God this only comes around once a year. There’s just so many of us (eleven kids plus two parents, though two kids are overseas and one’s at college so we only had seven), and everybody has to chime in on everything. It was three and a half hours that felt like a small lifetime. Even then we didn’t get everything done, so we’re going to have Christmas Planning Brunch: The Sequel sometime in November. I love my family, I really do. Just they make me feel so… claustrophobic.

What made it even more fun was that Heather, the sister I get along with the least, was especially fragile. She just found out that she’s being laid off. Her employers lost a major contract, and since she was the one most recently hired, she gets the ax. There had been some planning mix-ups about the brunch itself, and I hadn’t been notified that the time had been pushed back two hours to accommodate Heather’s schedule . At the beginning of the meeting, I asked that if we were going to change the time of a group event like this that we have at least a week’s notice. Heather decided that this was a personal attack against her, and said that the time had been open to change since no specific time had been set on the calendar. I stated that this wasn’t true, since I’d had it on my calendar with the original time for months. She decided this meant that I was calling her a liar, and proceeded to have an emotional outburst, complete with swear words, at the brunch table. Perhaps this is nothing unusual for most families, but I have a mother who doesn’t want us to even use the word “crap” because she considers it unacceptably vulgar. Thankfully Heather reined herself in about that point, or things could have gotten even more dramatic. Unfortunately, since this was in front of the entire family, everyone had to chime in immediately afterwards with their analysis, attempts to reconcile the two of us, recommendations for avoiding similar situations in the future, etc. By the time I got them to move on we were already an hour into the meeting and had accomplished precisely nothing. It was lovely.

The good thing is that we’ve established some important groundwork for the holiday season, including scheduling all the major family events, of which there are many. We’re a family who really likes to celebrate the whole Christmas season, not just one day. So there’s Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Family Gift Giving Day, Going To See A Movie Together, Preparing for Events, and the Huge Blowout New Year’s Day Party, with smaller things tucked in here and there between. I really like how we celebrate. I just wish there were a way to do it without the meetings.

In other news, I wore my Princess Pupule costume to the Halloween dance last night, and enjoyed myself thoroughly.  The costume was a hit.  As I was paying my admission, Jenn spied the basket of papayas I’d parked on the counter.  “Are those papayas?” she asked incredulously.  “Yes,” I said, “Do you know why?”  “Oh, yeah!” she said, and started laughing.  It was awesome.  And really, if you need a costume you can dance in, a hula girl costume is hard to beat!  It’s comfortable, not too hot, and the grass skirt really flies when you spin.  I wore two of them over my ballet leotard and tights, with leis around my neck, one pinned in my hair, and another twisted around my ankle.  I’ll wear the costume again at the weekly dance on Wednesday.  I have to say I’m looking forward to it!

My sister Judy, who is one of the most organized women I’ve ever known, just contacted me for my Christmas Wish List for this year. Every year she collects all the wish lists from everyone in the family and compiles them into one big spreadsheet of wish lists, then distributes that list far and wide to whoever might want to give one of us a gift. Sometimes it’s fun seeing how things have changed over the course of a year. Last year my wish list was:

  • A swarm of bees or rabbit from Heifer International, http://www.heifer.org
  • Coffee grinder
  • Small weather radio.
  • Blue or periwinkle moonbeam clock from L.L. Bean
  • Vintage rhinestones (get Leila’s opinion if needed)
  • Train tickets between Dayton and Milwaukee
  • Silly Disney Princess stuff – esp. Snow White
  • Gift cards for Target, Meijer, Cafepress.com, spreadshirt.com, zappos.com
  • Books:
    • Naomi Novik
    • Any volume of the Navarre Study Bible
    • A Chicago Style Manual
    • W.T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist
    • Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being
    • Berkman, Contemplating Edith Stein
    • A. McKendrick, On Film Making
    • Wendy Shalit, A Return To Modesty
    • Kerouac, A Book of Sketches
    • A good dictionary

This year my list is:

Just in case, you know, you wanted to know…