Sunday, December 09, 2012

Fast Away the Old Year Passes

I understand now why Christmas arrives in the stores sometimes even before Halloween has departed. It is a desperate attempt by the retailers to slow down Christmas’s approach, an effort to pile up a steep bank of days for the snowplow of the holiday season to barrel into.

When I was a kid, Christmas arrived with a stately grandeur. It crept through the days of December as agonizingly slowly as my unfathomably old Great-Great-Aunt Bess crept with tiny, shuffling steps from the carport to the back door when my mother brought her over from the nursing home to have Sunday dinner with the family.

For propriety’s sake, and because I was a sensitive child and didn’t want to hurt her feelings, I struggled not to race ahead of her and into the house. I minced along behind, grinding my teeth with the anguish of having to go so slowly it sometimes seemed we weren’t moving at all. I told myself she couldn’t help it, she was old, and someday I might be that ancient and slow-moving myself, though I didn’t really believe it. Even if I did manage to grow that aged, I was sure I’d never allow myself to become so incomprehensibly poky.

That was how Christmas came. Painfully, dizzyingly slowly. And unlike with Aunt Bess, with Christmas there wasn’t the option of giving up on politeness and dashing ahead. Each day of December felt like the longest day of the year. It was astonishing how long it took to get through the days on the Advent Calendar.

The Advent Calendar was one of the best things about Christmastime. There, laid out in my mother’s white cross-stitch on red linen, was each day of December, right up to Christmas Eve. Tied to a tiny white ring above each date was a raspberry toffee or sugary strawberry drop, a root beer barrel, or stripy peppermint or butterscotch disk — a sweet mouthful of holiday cheer. Colorful icons of the season danced between the rows of numerals: a Christmas tree lit with cross-stitched candles, angels with wreaths and bows, the sleeping city of Bethlehem, all leading up to Mary and Joseph and their newborn son under a silver and gold thread star for December 24th.

My sister Printha and I split the days. As eldest I got first choice, and I always chose “evens.” Each year I hoped she would trust my telling her it was best to have “odds” since that meant that she got December 1st, and the first piece of candy. I hoped that she would believe I was being nice to her and letting her start the calendar countdown since she was youngest, but I knew I was deceiving her, and I probably deserved at least one piece of coal in my stocking for it. “Evens” were by far the best, because that meant I got to have the Christmas Eve piece, richer and sweeter than the other candies because it was steeped in symbolism and anticipation.

I have the calendar now, which I hang on the wall on December 1. When I lived alone, I got every piece of candy, but this year I’m splitting the days with my housemate. In a bow to family tradition, I still get evens, leaving the odds for him. My sister has her own cross-stitched Advent Calendar hung with holiday sweets. Hers has white linen and red numerals, and is illuminated with pairs of ornaments hanging from two slender Christmas trees, but it shares a spirit with the red one on my wall.

On Christmas morning in 1998, when my sister and I were both grown but home in Nashville for the holidays, Mom pulled two identical, slender packages from under the tree. Their tags read, “To Zach or Printha, From Mom,” and “To Printha or Zach, From Mom.” She mixed them up behind her back, then said to me, “Left or right?” once again offering first choice to her eldest child. I chose left, and she handed it to me, giving Printha the gift on the right. We didn’t know what these mysterious, seemingly identical packages could possibly contain.

When I opened the box and unfolded the tissue paper, for a moment I couldn’t speak. There nestled in crinkly white crepe, was our old, beloved, red Advent Calendar from childhood. I was so choked up I couldn’t even say thank you, but I think my tears and the smile on my face said it for me.

My sister’s calendar is intricately beautiful, created new the year we received them, so that we could each have a Christmas treasure from our mother’s own hand. And in the intervening years since 1974 when Mom had stitched that first calendar, her skill in the fiber arts had soared. She had become a respected artist whose tools were linen and thread. Her pieces were exhibited at galleries and shows, and sold for hundreds of dollars for each single, delicately stitched work of art. Though the design of my sister’s calendar is rustic, on close examination there is no question which of the two calendars shows the most skill, the most refinement.

But I know I got the better end of the deal. I got the magic talisman that really can slow down the approaching holiday, because every time I take a candy from a ring, I am cast back to my childhood and the syrupy languor of time nearly standing still as Christmas Day approaches. Even though the days still rush and tumble, and there isn’t nearly enough time to get the shopping done, the gifts made and wrapped and sent, the special treats baked, the cards written and read; even though December is flying by, and as the magic day draws near I still have a Halloween pumpkin on my porch, and no lights up, and no idea how I’ll ever get ready in time; when I take tonight’s vanilla caramel from the ring, for the time it takes the candy to dissolve in my mouth, I’ll be 7 years old again, and aching with anticipation.

Mom, who was deeply spiritual and not at all religious, loved Christmas, and she passed that spirituality and love of the holiday and its rituals on to me. We shared an understanding of the Divine Mystery of the season, and a delight in its many traditions and frivolities. A year ago, as she lay in a hospice bed, I promised her that I wouldn’t let her death turn me bitter against the holidays. She crossed the threshold from this life into the next on December 6, 2011, just before the stroke of midnight, a night owl (another trait I inherited from her) to the end. This weekend when I put up my tree, I’ll hang it with some of the sequined stars she stitched every Christmas to give to the people closest to her. I’ll sing carols I know she loved, make treats from dog-eared recipe cards in her handwriting, and through my tears, I’ll embrace the hope, peace, joy, and love of the Christmas season. (by Zach McCallum)

 

 

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