Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas Blessings





Christmas is a time of contrasts in many ways.  In the northern climes, one travels regularly from warmth to sometimes bitter cold and back again.  There is commotion all around it seems - frantic rushing to prepare, holiday greetings shared, the raucous laughter of loved ones gathered together.  But in the end - when all the presents are opened, all are tucked in bed, the lights turned low except for the glow of the tree and the last flickering embers in the hearth - there is silence.

Many of my happiest memories of Christmas revolve around those times - when all the work and preparation and effort have come to a successful conclusion and the world closes down to soft music in the background, a candle or two burning low, the tree ablaze in twinkling lights - and the signature Christmas glow of contentment and unbridled hope for the future.

My eyes will fall on the nativity, recalling the hymns sung fervently earlier in the evening, and I will allow the profundity of that simple scene to put things in perspective and remind me once again of the purpose of the season.  The candlelit, a capella 'Silent Night' that ends our church service every year will play again in my head - and I will shed another bittersweet tear, recalling how that moment always touched my mother so deeply and how she so dearly loved this season. 

But its not a moment of sadness at all.  Its a time of fond memories, blessings recounted, warmth that spans generations and time and astral planes - a moment to share in the heart with all those who's physical presence can no longer be shared.  I will be alone in the room, but surrounded by those I love and have loved.

After a time, I will quietly move to the closet, bundle up warmly, and then venture forth for a walk in the crisp night air.  This year, there will be snow and - if the skies are clear - some moonlight to mark my path.  My eyes will search the heavens, and rest upon that same star of legend and lore that has guided countless souls before me to their destination - and perhaps to their destiny. I will listen to the night and attempt to garner all it has to teach - and through it all, I will offer countless quiet prayers of thanks for all the blessings bestowed upon me, chief among them the people who touch my life, who offer their hand in support, who buoy me with their smiles, who fill my heart, who give me reason and hope.


To all who may read this, I wish a season of blessings and smiles, joy and hope, peace and happiness, health and love - and perhaps a quiet moment alone with your thoughts to contemplate and appreciate them all.  Merry Christmas.  Happy Holidays.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Warmth of a Winter Sun




For the past several days, its been grey and cold.  Every time the driveway has been cleared of snow, a new batch has arrived, and the roadways have – at times – been less than welcoming.


But late last night, as the last of the snow fell silently to the ground, the clouds began to part – and a brilliant patch of moonlight bathed the blanket of white with a radiance so pure as to bring tears to one’s eyes.  The silence of winter made the moment even more captivating.  For a moment, the world had stopped - frozen in time – pristine and beautiful and unspoiled.


With the dawn came blue sky and bright sunshine, casting shadows and highlighting the tracks of animals large and small, marking their journeys through and around the property, feet and sometimes only inches from the door.


On days like this, the soul is easy, the heart is full, the eye is delighted – and all the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations seems easier and brighter and so much more purposeful.  It’s a day when smiles come easily and people – no matter how rushed – take the time to share one with friends and strangers alike.


Many have chosen to flee this climate, seeking warmth and sun year-round – where 50 feels cold and a passing cloud makes the evening news.  There is much to be said for such predictability – and during times when its hard to remember what the tips of the fingers actually feel like, such locations do sometimes sing the enticing song of the Sirens – but there is also nothing there to compare with a day such as this.  No Caribbean sky is as blue as that which contrasts with new-fallen snow.  No palm tree is as graceful as the fir which sheds its coat of white as the sun warms its branches.  No beach can provide the same tingle to the skin as the bracing nature of frigid air combined with the warmth of a winter sun.


It's a day that makes one feel alive and vital – happy and grateful to know such a day.  It’s a day that makes one feel warm from the inside out - which is always the best way to be warm.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Memories and Smiles





This is not the entry I planned to make today.  Perhaps that will come at another time for it’s a message I’d still like to share, but for now here’s a little snippet of my life:


I decorated the house today.  The outside decorations were done a few weeks ago before the temperatures dropped and the snow fell, but today it was time for the interior to take on a semblance of the holiday.


Christmas is my favorite time of the year and I cherish all the memories and traditions it holds for me.  That does not translate into lavish decoration, however – only things that have meaning to me, despite their understated appearance.  Each year, I search for the smallest real tree I can find.  In this era of bigger is better, finding a tree in the 4 to 5 foot range is many times a challenge, but this year I found a scotch pine that called my name – measuring a whopping 56” from trunk to tiptop.  It was off to the side and already in a stand – probably to demonstrate that, despite its crooked trunk, it could still stand straight and proudly.  While others wrestled mightily to secure nine and ten foot monsters to the roofs of their SUVs, I quietly slipped my little treasure into my trunk - and closed the lid.


It sat outside since Monday to let its branches settle, but today was the day to bring it inside.  It fit the stand easily and – as advertised – stood straight and tall.  I fed it some water and watched as it thirstily drank, then brought up the lights and the other decorations from the basement and set to work:


As always, first came the nativity set – displayed in a prominent location and away from any secular trappings of the season.  The star was lit and I stood for a moment in silence to remember once more why we celebrate this holiday in the first place.


Then it was time for the music to play – loud enough so that I can simply immerse myself in the moment – and the rest of the work began.  The stockings were hung, the votive village was placed carefully on the mantle, candles set in place, the small plastic lightup church from my childhood placed on the desk – battered and taped from years of use, but always able to bring a smile to my face.  I carefully wound the key to the music box inside and heard its clear rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful for probably the thousandth time, but still as touching as the first.


Finally, it was time for the tree itself – placed on a small table to give it height but not to overwhelm the room, and allow for presents to be placed easily beneath.  As always, I placed and lit the star first, and then began unrolling the strands of lights.


Now almost all of my memories of Christmas are fond, but it does tear at my heart to remember those with whom I can no longer celebrate – most notably my mother and grandmother, those who always seemed to know how to make the day the most special it could be.  But this year, an unexpected twinge arrived as I uncoiled the first set of lights.  For the past 16 Christmases, that first strand of lights would suddenly attract a grey blur.  It would appear silently and without warning, take the furthest-most bulb gently in its teeth and run, stopping abruptly as I held the other end of the strand, then rolling over and playfully batting at the lights and my hand as I came near.


His name was Pippin.  He was all grey with beautiful green eyes.  His coat was sleek and he had an attitude, but he was also about the sweetest cat I’d ever known.  Every Christmas, he was as much a part of the decorating as the tree and the lights themselves.  Things took longer and a strand or two of lights were destroyed over the years from a bit too much exuberant play, but he was as much a holiday memory and tradition as any I’ve described here.


This past summer, he passed away – and rests under a tree in the yard I can see every day from the sunroom window.  Hardly a day passes when I don’t still see a shadow in the corner of my eye, hear a sound and assume its him making his way through the house on some imaginary adventure, feel him against my feet at the end of the bed. But still it hit me hard when there was no one to pounce on the lights this year – and I sat silently on the floor by the tree for many minutes before I could invoke the holiday spirit again.


When the lights were all on the tree, I took the boxes of decorations back to the basement.  But before I came back upstairs, I searched through the box once more and retrieved a tiny red stocking I’d originally decided not to place this year.  It had come with a small gift from a friend exactly16years ago – and it had immediately found its place on the mantle as Pippin’s stocking.  I brought it upstairs, hung it on its familiar hook – and suddenly it felt like Christmas again.