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Yuletide Thoughts

December already?  How?  This morning the car door was frozen shut and I actually had to put on a jacket when we went out, which is rare for me.  Just like that, the festive season is here once again.

Like many others I suppose, ours is a house somewhat divided.  My husband has been growling about Christmas since around mid-November, to the point where I asked him the other night after another outburst at a Christmas commercial, “Are you really hating on Christmas, or are you doing it to be funny?”  He looked at me for a moment and then said evenly, “I’m not doing it to be funny…”  Oops!  I know that Sem doesn’t actually hate Christmas.  It’s just not a big event for him, so the hype that begins pretty much the day after Halloween has worn a bit thin for him by now.

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I’m in full agreement that holiday music, merchandise, sales, ads, TV shows and whatever else should not appear until December, but at the same time, I like the holiday season and I think it deserves more than just one or two days of celebration.  While I don’t start blasting Christmas music on December 1st (I daren’t!), I do enjoy it – a lot, in fact.  Some of my fondest memories are of singing in choirs at this time of year, performing both the sacred and secular music of the season.  My family and many of my friends celebrate Christmas, and I have dear friends who celebrate Hanukkah; for other friends, winter Solstice takes precedence, and a handful observe a combination of all three.  I don’t know if any of my friends celebrate Kwanzaa; no one has ever mentioned it.  If they do, I’d love to know more about it.  The more holidays we can pack into the waning year, the better, in my opinion!

But there’s more to my fondness for this time of year, which has nothing to do with family gatherings or gifts or decorations or music.  It is the actual season itself that creates this feeling in my heart.

In some ways I think we grow up too quickly.  We stop noticing things as we get bogged down in adulthood by all the holiday expectations, losing the wonder of this time of year.  I don’t mean the childhood belief in Santa or the soul’s adoration in worship or all the sort of mystical and magical things that many of these winter holidays prompt within us.  Those are lovely, too, but I mean something older and more enduring.  When I tune out the Christmas ads and ignore the full-throated screamfests of our terrible upstairs neighbors, when I try not to focus on the many health issues and worries we have, I can, if I try hard enough, feel the peace and stillness that this time of year brings.  This old Earth does her thing, and there is an ancient, quiet beauty in it.

What is most noticeable to me during these weeks, when I pay attention, is that there’s something special about the quality of the light.  It isn’t merely that we only have a handful of daylight hours in the dark months, it’s that the light we do get, is exceptional.  Oh, there’s a lot to be said for the tinge of hope that tints the springtime sky, the dazzling joy of the long, deep summer sunshine, and the crisp, flat, cool autumn light, but winter… winter in these northern latitudes is special.  Shadows deepen while the sun traverses a low arc, and its rays pick out details like no other time of year.  Each season’s light has a feeling, I think:  spring promise, summer growth, autumn harvest…  then along comes winter and it positively glows.  In between the cloudy, stormy, and rainy days, the rare and lovely bright spells of winter sunshine are more captivating to me than all the other times of year.  Some afternoons it seems like the sun begins to wane almost before it has fully risen, and the particular, peculiar light brings a hush to the land and a certain tranquility which settles into my heart.  There is peace and there is wistfulness, and memories that pile up like gifts beneath a softly lit Christmas tree.

I have mentioned before (last year’s December column, in fact) that this is a difficult time of year, for me.  We lost my father during this time, thirty Christmases ago.  He survived into the new year, but only just.  A specific day in this month always takes my breath away with remembered horror and fear and sadness, and grief that rises again to the surface each year.  But there is also joy and love, because in the midst of tragic memories I recall some of the best things to happen in my life, too.

On the day of my father’s funeral all those years ago, I learned that my best friend was pregnant with a wee one who became the daughter of my heart.  The next year her soft baby blanket caught my tears as I endured my first Christmas without my Papa; holding that small, warm bundle close to me somehow gave me comfort (thank you, Stephanie!).  A few years later her little brother arrived, just before Christmas, and my heart expanded further to hold another much-loved child, not my own, but my heart’s own (hi, Jeffrey!).  How glad I was to share in their Christmases in the years that followed, to see their excitement and to watch them grow.  Now they are building their own lives at nearly opposite ends of the East Coast, all grown up and an ocean away from me but still so very, very dear.  Those two sweethearts saved Christmas for me, in the early years when otherwise all I would have felt was an aching sadness.  How can you stay fully sad when little ones with sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks tell you in all excited seriousness that they DID see Santa’s sleigh up there in the sky, they really, really DID!

Photo credit: Stephanie.

As this year winds down, I must decide once again how to feel about Christmas.  Sad, and missing people who mean so much to me?  Frustrated at all the hype?  Or happy that I am here with my Sem, who means more to me than life itself and who inexplicably still loves me as fiercely and truly as I love him?  Christmastime is bound up with past joys and sorrows, but in the end it is not so hard to decide.  I choose happiness; I choose light.  I am as good at tuning out the Christmas commercials as I am at taking in all the festive decorations and lights around the town, enjoying their color and sparkle.  Last week Santa and his sleigh were pulled through the streets of Wick (by a tractor – we are, after all, in farming country), and I ran to the window like an excited child when I realized why Christmas music was echoing through the streets.  In spite of the grumbles of my lovable SemGrinch, I will hold on to my inner Christmas spirit, even through difficult days when it is fleeting, much like the winter sun.

Perhaps the thing that makes this brief winter light so beautiful is the way it glimmers while nature (in this hemisphere) holds its breath; while things burrow in the deep earth, and the cold makes us draw closer to each other, seeking both physical and emotional warmth.  Maybe the radiance is so striking because the last glimpses of the sun highlight the waning of the year, and of all the years, picking out details we never noticed before.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks back during this time, and just like the low shafts of winter sun reveal details we might not normally see, my heart seeks out one shimmering memory after another, spotlighting them for a brief moment until they recede again into the shadowy past.  Some shine through tears while others sparkle with delight, and each one makes up this life of mine.  I am grateful for a season that gently but insistently slows my thoughts down and fills my heart with remembrances of the many beloved people who have graced my path; some for only a time, and others who continue to fill my life.

Whether you celebrate a holiday or you don’t, I wish you a beautiful season, and send you love from the windswept Highlands.