It is suddenly December, even though I for one do not know where the time went. As if by some miracle, Christmas and Hanukah celebrations are happening all over the globe. This holiday season is a time of renewal, a time to exercise our faith, our love of family and our fellow man - and a time to promote peace.This season means many things to many people, both religiously and secularly. Some see it as the end of another year, the next step in our march toward the millenium. Others view it as a hectic shopping, wrapping, mailing, returning, buying, and baking nightmare. Yet there are those who recognize this time as a gift in and of itself, and we commemorate Christmas day as one in which our lives were inalterably changed forever. Regardless of all else, including what Christmas means to each of us, we all have our traditions.
Some people - myself included - complain that the stores start their holiday season much too early. As early as September, there are many retail outlets that put up trees, garlands and lights that twinkle. By mid-September of this year, the motion-activated talking Christmas tree standing guard at the entry of my neighborhood apothecary had already annoyed me. The fact of the matter is the season too often becomes about what we get or give rather than the reason we have it at all.Christmas decorating dates back centuries. One of the earliest "traditions" - a wreath on the door - welcomed visitors and made a statement about the people living inside. Christmas trees and a Santa of one variety or the other have been a part of our civilization for decades. And while traditions vary from culture to culture, they all have their roots in families.
When our kids married and started families of their own, we urged them to start their own traditions. The first few Christmases without them being in our home were difficult, but change of any kind is hard. The result however, is that we visit them and share in whatever part of their traditional Christmas we can. That includes grandpa reading ’Twas the night before Christmas to the grandchildren, no matter what the actual day is. We carry two copies - a big book for grandpa to read from and a pop up for the kids to ooh and ah at - and grandma videotapes the moments while she wipes a few bittersweet tears away. That’s pretty traditional too.
People used to tease me because I traditionally put up a Christmas tree on my birthday, (it’s just after Thanksgiving so all of you are late with your cards and gifts) but this seems to be the perfect day to do it. I have always been a kid about Christmas - I love it. I turn on the music, bring all the ornaments and lights out of storage and I spend the entire afternoon decorating the tree.I used to do a "decorator tree" - you know one with a theme. I still do, but now the theme is more often than not a very simple one, and it has become uncannily similar to last year’s. So, I’ve even started to decorate my tree in a traditional way. It always has white lights, gold ornaments and white doves. There are other pieces of course; heirloom quality paper chains and irreplaceable construction paper ornaments - they all have their place on my tree amongst the doves.
And my house always has its share of Christmas spread around. Wreaths grace the doors, candles glow in the windows and of course the table is set for whatever guests might just drop in. Between Thanksgiving and New Years, my oven gets its annual workout. I have to make the traditional Polish cookies for the family - why, it wouldn’t be Christmas without them. And my mother’s recipe for Fruit Cookies keeps me in the kitchen for about 3 more days, but it’s tradition - it is love. Then of course there’s that eggnog recipe that would frighten any normal bacteria-fearing person because of the eggs in it - but well you know - it is tradition.
Whether you hang stockings, open gifts on the 24th, sing carols or serve food at your local homeless shelter, you have traditions that are important to you and to your family. You might attend a Christmas Eve service in your church or have a block party with your neighbors. You might be up all night putting toys together and taking a requisite bite out of cookies left for Santa.
It’s traditional for me to find people on my list whose gift I literally agonize about. I may think of half-dozen things for them, but I get stuck when I start thinking about whether or not they will like it. I realize that’s not what Christmas is about, so this year, I have developed a list of appropriate gifts that I am happy to share with you. Feel free to use them and if you choose, claim them as your own:
- A handwritten note to a friend or a shut in;
- A favorite poem, framed;
- A box of stationery and stamps for an elderly relative;
- A photograph of you and them;
- Time spent manning the phone on a teen suicide hotline;
- A donation to cancer or aids research;
- Picking up trash in the neighborhood;
- Supplies for the homeless shelter;
- Food and toys for the animals in the pound;
- Time with your family - undisturbed, uninterrupted and peaceful.
As you decorate your home this holiday, do so with joy and love. Celebrate your traditions as only you can and share your holiday cheer with those around you. Give as you can give, not out of necessity or expectation but out of genuine fondness. And remember that giving of oneself and ones time would often be the recipient’s gift of choice.My gift to you - my words, and my sincere wish that your Christmas will be as traditional as you can make it, and as loving as its name implies. Happy Hanukah, and Merry Christmas.