Chasing Christmas

This time of year is a kaleidoscope of intensity: way too much food and festivity, twinkling shops and bustling craziness, precious time with family. I’ve always loved Christmas—it was the time of year everyone in my family knew, with profound clarity, how much we loved each other.

It’s not that we didn’t believe in that love the rest of the year. We just didn’t express it as openly as during the holidays, through what we did for each other and the gifts we shared. It was easy to show how much we knew each other and truly saw each other, through the careful attention we paid to what we thought each other might need or want.

Gary Chapman describes in The Five Love Languages that some people feel most loved through receiving gifts, versus others who appreciate more words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, etc. My mother was the most amazing gift giver—she had an incredible ability to put together the perfect outfit for you, find just the right unique toy, or wrap just the right book. Her gifts—down to a particular beanie baby she would put in each of the top of her grandchildren’s stockings—showed how much she truly cared for them.

(Of course, there was that time when I was about 10 when my mother gave me a large wrapped box that I thought was the electronic Simon memory game, but instead was a small pottery wheel. I still remember it—it was orange. But I forgave her for this faux pas/bait-and-switch—she had my educational interests at heart.)

Her special gift giving came in many forms. In the toe of our stockings on Christmas morning, my brother and sister and I would each find large balls of yarn—we’d have to unwind them to find out what was inside. As we pulled on the brightly colored red or green string, tiny presents would fall out—a glass animal, a pin, a magnet. When we had it completely unraveled, one last gift, such as a pair of earrings or a mini action figure, would be tied to the end.

Over the years, our string-unwinding improved—we had to get better at working with the yarn ball as we unrolled it because winding the knotted and crumpled mass afterwards was a drag if you were a kid impatient for moving on to open presents. She probably got the idea for the yarn balls from Family Circle—that was her Pinterest.

Our mother had a very strong aesthetic sense, and was very artistic—she made advent calendars for each of us from strips of felt, with silver bells attached with yarn—one to untie each day of December. One year, she decided that from that point on, she would only wrap her gifts in red and green. No other colors allowed. The final result was simply stunning underneath the tree. To this day, I have trouble wrapping in Christmas paper with any other colors. Blue is simply a travesty.

Just decorating our Christmas tree was a production. It was always my mother’s job to put the lights on. Sometimes it would take her a week to get them just right. She would never just throw strings on and circle them around—she had to run a light string up and down each branch, attaching at strategic points. One tree could take thousands of lights. Sometimes, she would hang a string every few days, and so the tree would slowly light up over two weeks’ time.

In 2006, which ended up being my mother’s last Christmas, I put the lights on the tree for her. She was very ill, but still she managed to drag herself off the couch to help us decorate. She hung the ornaments she had collected from around the world—tiny fur mittens from Nordkapp, straw donkeys from Mexico, Japanese dolls in kimonos. We hung red, wooden gingerbread men that had our baby faces glued on them, and ornaments of dolls, rocking horses, and teddy bears my father had cut with a bandsaw and that she had painted. There were wise men her granddaughters had made with clothespins and felt clothes. We hummed to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.

Since that time, my brother and sister and I have been chasing this magic she brought into Christmas each year. We try to find just the right long-sleeved shirts and PBS DVD sets for our dad. We might give our kids new pajamas to open on Christmas Eve, just like we did every year growing up. My brother bought his wife a gingerbread cookie cutter off eBay this year, the exact same cutter my mother used to have, and he got instructions from my sister on how to decorate them: white zig-zagged frosting for trim, half or quarter candy cherries for buttons, half raisins for eyes. He also put yarn balls in the toes of his kids’ stockings, hiding mini Lego people parts that they could assemble once they found all the pieces.

What did I do this year? I tried to bake a batch of Swedish Butter Balls, one of my mother’s many special Christmas cookie recipes. She used to bake eight or so different kinds and package them up for friends and neighbors. But when I taste-tested one of my cookies afterward, it tasted musty. How does a cookie taste musty? I now know the answer to that. If your walnuts are stale, because you only remember to bake something with walnuts once a year, the result will be musty cookies. Yeah, that’s me, the less skilled holiday baker.

I still love Christmas. It’s an amazing time. I love spending it with the next generations of our family, finding just the right gifts, celebrating together, remembering the simple joys. But my sister and brother and I always feel that there is something always missing. 

Brian Andreas, one of my favorite artists, sums this up perfectly. One of his drawings reads: I still remember the day the world took you back….and there was never time to thank you for the thousand scattered moments you left behind to watch us while we slept.

Those scattered moments are loosely tied to this Christmas yarn we’re holding tight in our fingers.