Blowin’ In: Christmas Without Artifice
By Susan Mangan
“The newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children:
The spirit-shocking wonder
in a black slanting Ulster hill . . .
the bog-holes, cart tracks, old stables
where Time begins.
O after Christmas, we’ll have no need to go
Searching for the difference that sets an old phrase
Burning . . .
Christ comes with a January flower.”
(“Advent” by Patrick Kavanagh)
Artifice pulls us into the trap of the Christmas season. Holiday music begins as yellowed sycamore leaves fly in the crisp November air. Snowmen perch happily next to signs for “Harvest Blessings,” while red and green lights illuminate moonlit nights in late autumn.
Twenty-first century marketing will never relinquish to Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Walking down humbug lane with Ebenezer Scrooge, I embrace the merry mayhem with the resolve that “Christmas comes but once a year.”
After sleepless nights as a nurse, my mother would utter these words like a mantra as she untangled lights and threw tins of burnt spritz cookies into the bin. Despite my mother’s exhaustion, Santa always arrived before 5 am on Christmas Day, dishes of ribbon candy rested on every sideboard, and a bowl filled with plump oranges and nuts sat on the dining room table. Mothers passed North Pole bootcamp with high marks.
Ironically, immersion into this wonderland of baubles and confections does not make me merrier, just more frenetic that usual. Much like my mom before me, I hate to disappoint.
The holidays are built on tradition, whether that means roasting that turkey on the table or baking dozens of sugar frosted cookies that are devoured before Christmas Eve. I try my elfin best to uphold expectation, but inevitably something always goes wrong. Disgruntled trolls threaten my quest at every turn.
To thwart seasonal anxiety, I have built in a few rituals of my own that allow me to breathe as the holidays inevitably unravel. Oftentimes, I look to the purity of nature: her birds and beasts and the subtle change of atmosphere when I seek a moment’s peace. True magic lies in the passing of seasons, when the darkness of autumn surrenders to the promise of light on the eve of the winter solstice.
Since childhood, I could sense snow that falls in the dark hours of sleep. A feeling of calm, like a weighted blanket, seemingly envelops the house. Wind lulls me to sleep, and snow, a silent benevolent phantom, whispers quiet dreams. Upon waking, there is a decided chill in the air as I reach for my thick glasses. Finally, I see out of my window, rather than sense, the snow that has blanketed the skeletal limbs of trees. Icy configurations hang from stubborn oak leaves, primitive ornaments, gifts from the earth.
Before the sleeping house awakes, I accompany my spaniel as she cuts a path through the pristine tableau of white. She can hardly wait for her human to step into old Wellingtons and wrap a tattered woolen coat around her flannel pajamas.
My spaniel leaps with the vigor of an Artic hare through the fallen drifts of new snow reminding me of the miracle of life. I like to breathe winter air deeply until my lungs nearly burst with the cold.
On those rare Christmas eve nights when snow falls in frozen cascades, I run childlike into the wind and stand mesmerized by the soft glow of my Christmas tree as seen from the front yard. My hair stiffens, and yet is not so grey that crystalline snowflakes still shine like coronets against a pillow of chestnut velvet.
Removing my frozen coat, I quietly slip back into the house. By this time, dawn is approaching. Still awake, I am enjoying the peaceful strains of medieval carols and motets by the acapella quartet Anonymous 4. I listen with a calm heart to the sounds of angels, alive and gently snoring, the memory of my mother breathing deep of her mantra, and the hymn of silence before the waking dawn.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.