As a child, I never felt more alive than at Christmas. I have always been one to experience life intensely, both its high points and low, but something about Christmas made me focus especially hard on every precious minute. It was almost as if in December I could actually sense time slipping away from me; I could feel its loss as life whirled on, ever-changing. At Christmas there was always a sense of “things will never again be as they are right now.”
But then again, that could have just been me. I was a funny little kid.
Though we were a very small family we had a whole litany of Christmas traditions we enjoyed. Some of them, upon reflection, seem slightly old-fashioned and probably wouldn’t hold the attention of a modern child, but I adored them all. Here are a few of my favorites:
Each year, immediately following Thanksgiving, there began in our neighborhood an unspoken and good-natured contest between the mothers to see who would get the electric candles up in the windows first (jumping the gun by putting them up before Thanksgiving was an immediate disqualification). I loved those awful plastic candles. I admit: I still do. In the early years of my life, the window-candle bulbs in our house were Halloween-orange and frosted. It was the late ’70s, and as I recall, most things at that time were Halloween-orange and frosted. Our neighbors up the hill whose two boys were my very best friends (and still feel like my brothers) had glorious red bulbs in their plastic candles, which made the interior of their house look positively macabre. We kids loved it. We played “haunted house” in the glow of those blood-red lights for several seasons running until their mom got fed up with us and switched them out for white.
Throughout December, Mum let me keep the plastic candle in my window on all night and as I was falling to sleep I’d gaze at it. The effect was mesmerizing, and even now when I return to my folks’ house for the holidays, nothing is more comforting to me or more indicative of the season than those silly plastic 35-year-old candles (complete with molded plastic wax “drips” on their exteriors) glowing merrily away in the windows.
Another favorite tradition was the “Advent Workshop” our church held each year during the first Sunday of Advent. It was an all-day affair, beginning after the service. The entire undercroft of the church was set up with holiday-themed craft stations, and for a quarter or so a craft, a kid with two bucks in her pocket could spend the entire evening getting covered in glue and glitter and completing every Advent craft that was offered. Just about every finished craft could do double-duty as an ornament, and for years our Christmas tree at home was festooned with a variety of Advent Workshop projects. The mothers and the teenage girls always took on the important grown-up project of making their family’s Advent wreath from a block of styrofoam and the sea of cut evergreen branches that were dragged into the junior choir’s dressing room each year for that purpose. I was an impatient and slightly wild crafter and so was never invited to lend a hand with that particular project, especially as it involved garden shears and a measure of dexterity.
After the crafting was finished, we all sat down for a delicious potluck dinner. I was a notoriously picky eater as a kid, but for some reason every year I emerged from my culinary cocoon for that one fabulous night. I made a habit of eating everything in sight. Several times. Every dish was sublime, pure ambrosia. And once we had stuffed ourselves silly, the plates were cleared, the lights were turned down, candles and books of carols were passed around, and we sang.
We sang any and all carols requested, and with gusto. It was a special treat to have a seat near Reverend J., who, apart from being kind and funny and a wonderful storyteller, had a beautiful singing voice and sang louder than anyone else in the room. We would light our individual candles for “Silent Night,” always the last song of the evening. Sometimes I wouldn’t sing myself, but I’d just listen to the chorus of soft voices around me, of my friends, my family, people I had known my whole life. I can’t remember every Christmas gift I received as a child, but the memory of the sheer delight of our yearly Advent Workshop is always easily recalled and is a marvelous gift in and of itself.