I’m still thinking about Amid the Winter Snow, the wonderful anthology I wrote about last week. This week, my Muse was tickled by another novella from the book, The Storm, by Elizabeth Hunter. This is the story of Renata and Maxim, long-time lovers whose chemistry eventually overwhelms the armor around Renata's heart to find their HEA. Joyful. Renata has suffered terrible loss and devastating grief, so much so that she is incapable of any joy. She remembers that her mate, family— her entire community— was slaughtered by their enemies, leaving her mired in her despair. Renata can only remember the pain without the happiness that preceded it, until she is gifted with a release that enables her to access the joy she once felt. The themes of grief obliterating joy and the gift of unencumbered memories touched me deeply.
It's the holiday season. Actually, the holiday season is almost over. We've almost made it through. Holidays feel like a marathon. The sheer number of balls in the air that need juggling is exhausting. The gift giving is out of control. Gifts for friends and family. Teacher gifts, coaches' gifts, presents for employers and employees, hostess gifts for holiday parties, gifts for the mailman, the paper boy, the UPS and FedEx drivers who crunch down our driveway, delivering ever more stuff. This is a self-inflicted wound, I know, but I can't help myself and I want to recognize everyone and let them know that I appreciate them and all they do. But the gift giving is just one more thing that sucks the joy out of the season, transforming generosity into just another chore. The other aspect of the holidays that leeches joy from otherwise happy activities is the ghost of Christmas past. This apparition reminds me of those who are no longer here, the traditions that died with them, and the apathy of those whom I love, but who don't share my appreciation of a particular way of doing Christmas.
My mother had some talents. She had a flair for giving thoughtful, welcome gifts, and she threw a hell of a party. She combined these talents to create lovely gatherings on Christmas Eve, which happened to be her birthday. Because we were Jews, she eschewed a Christmas tree (more pagan than religious, but whatever), but decorated with an abundance of poinsettia plants, candles, garlands and bows. Presents accumulated under the piano, our tree surrogate, on which she would give pride of place to an enormous menorah, nestled among the many framed photographs on top of the baby grand. It was a strange juxtaposition, and no one was really fooled, but we all pretended we were celebrating her birthday instead of Jesus' and my Jewish grandmother was presumably mollified that her daughter was observing the proprieties of the December dilemma.
My mother always included a number of outsiders for the festivities, and she plied the table with enough food to feed a small army of teenaged boys, well before my sons achieved that age. Sometimes there was live music, and we would gather around the piano, holding sheet music and belting out Christmas carols like we were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
There was at least one gift for all comers, no matter who showed up (my mother kept a collection of boxed leather gloves, scarves, and handkerchiefs to offer as gifts for last minute attendees), so no one felt left out. This was New York, and there was always a collection of motley Jews happy to score an invite for free food and drink on Christmas Eve. We all dressed up, indulged and imbibed, opened presents, sang songs and generally enjoyed a fun and festive Yule time, Jewish style.
I miss those Christmases. I miss being the recipient of lavish generosity coupled with elegant finery dressing the guests, the table and my mother’s home. These days, my holiday feels vaguely transactional, with the recipe including lists complete with associated URL's, checks marked against accomplished tasks, and growing kids losing any wonder or magic the season might once have engendered. There is a lot of cooking and cleaning, but there is also the enjoyment of meals lovingly prepared. There are cookies and Christmas carols for the neighbors, and a Christmas service at an inclusive, creative church. We watch Christmas movies at home and often go to the movies later in the afternoon before our Christmas dinner. We've made new traditions to replace the old.
But I find I miss the old ways. Finally, after almost five years of distance, I can think back to my mother and remember that there was joy mixed in among the misery. Like Renata learns as she finally heals, it feels good to remember good times. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss my mother (a little). Her philosophy was that Christmas presents should be something perhaps frivolous but coveted, something one couldn't buy for oneself. Some in my family resented that, yearning for necessities, which I understood. But my mother enjoyed the giving with so much evident pleasure, that it enhanced the whole experience. I enjoyed the obvious care she took in presentation. Her gifts were gorgeously wrapped, works of art in themselves, so much so that we took extreme care in the unwrapping, drawing out the anticipation of revealing the treasure inside the package. It was lovely.
I'm grateful that I can look back at Christmas past and think about the joy, instead of just the pain. Time passes and things change, this is true, but the end of something shouldn't forever alter the way we think about it.
So, I will be joyful today, appreciative of what I have and what I had. And that change happens—throughout the season of joy and beyond.