The dark comes swift and cold this time of year.
My family’s winter holiday traditions grew from roots firmly planted in European soil with a centuries’ deep layer of Christianity over the pagan bedrock of the feasts and decorations. But as my children have moved through the Waldorf grades, I’ve watched and listened as they’ve learned that the gifts of light, food, and music in times of darkness and cold transcend cultures and religions. In addition to the familiar rituals of Advent, they’ve accompanied Santa Lucia on her journey, celebrated Diwali, learned Hanukkah songs on their instruments, and been gifted by St. Nicholas.
Our households are not particularly religious, nor often organized, but certain traditions and a sense of seasonal rhythm (however loose) unites us as family.
Depending on where we plan to gather, individual houses in our family may receive varying degrees of Christmas decoration ranging from the odd pinecone up to the full-on Sugar Plum Fairy treatment. Our holiday prep follow similar patterns; some years there are weeks of baking and crafting and carols, other years the weeks spin toward the holidays too fast for anything but bare-bones and last minute gifting and cooking.
But, my children know that no matter the upheaval anywhere else in life, one thing will hold true every year. There will always be a Christmas tree.
One year, nearly forty years ago, there almost wasn’t a tree.
My parents are both only children, so family holidays were a combined effort, always including both sets of grandparents, sometimes my great-grandmother, and often the odd great-aunt and uncle. Even though my sister and I were the only grandchildren, our holidays never felt small. They bustled and cracked with food and energy and love.
When I was about six, my family (parents, baby sister, both sets of grandparents) gathered in a rented condominium near Lake Tahoe on Christmas Eve. I remember the crunch and slip of my tennis shoes on the parking lot snow, the diamond edges of the air, so different from the thick tule fog of home, and the feeling that anything could happen. As I was shuffled into the condo amid the bags and boxes and enveloped in bear hugs, I looked around and felt something sink. It didn’t seem possible; part of me believed there was another room somewhere. But no, nowhere amid the unwieldy 1970s furniture and rust upholstery was the thing that made Christmas real. The smell I prized above even that of baking cookies had stayed outside.
In all of the adult pre-trip strategizing, a critical element had been overlooked. No one had brought the tree.
I was heartbroken. I crumpled on the couch in tears.
Looking back with adult eyes, I can imagine the layers of irritation added to the existing unpacking and holiday stresses by a six-year-old meltdown. But I have no memories of anyone giving me the sense that my sorrow was a burden.
My dad’s mother was a fiercely optimistic force of nature. Holidays were her bailiwick. Little inconveniences like snowstorms or missing Christmas trees were no deterrent to the perfect holiday. She hustled my father and grandfathers out the door into a snowy and quickly darkening evening to find a tree and sat me down at the table to string popcorn for “when they come back with a tree.” Not “if.” Failure was not an option.
Meanwhile, out in the night, all the tree lots were sold out and closed.
But several hours later, around the time my mother was making noises about bed, there was a clomping and rustling at the door. The expedition had returned with a tree -- of sorts. They'd found a woman in a nearby condo unit who had an overly large tree, and as she was throwing out the bottom foot or so that had been lopped off, she gave it to them.
From that sad remnant of pine, my father and grandfathers jury-rigged a tree for me. It was scrawny, and probably rather wobbly, but when it came time to take down the decorations and clean the condo, I mourned that tree more than any other in my life. I remember standing by the dumpster, staring at the little tree and its popcorn-draped branches, sobbing to my grandmother that this was "the best tree ever."
“The first light of Advent is the light of stones, the light that shines in crystals, in sea-shells, and in bones.” Our traditions represent the bones of family, a solid framework, a core of stability in a sometimes cold, dark, and uncertain world. Those traditions, whether they be trees, crafts, lights, food, or music warm and hold us through the winters of life.
It's been nearly 40 years, but, for that tree and the love it represented, my children know that no matter where we are or how tightly we are budgeted, there will always be a tree. Also, Santa will always be left cookies and a beer, but that’s a story for another time.