It’s December and that means I’m listening to Christmas music, enjoying Christmas decorations and lights, walking through the Christmas displays at my favorite stores. I’m awash in red, green, silver, and gold.
And after the intense depths of the end of November–my mother died the Sunday after Thanksgiving, eight years ago–I can feel the less lonely sort of grief, the type that brings my mother back to me with every glittering ornament.
The funny thing is that my mother was never about appearances. Her house wasn’t decorated perfectly and she didn’t wear the latest styles. She favored food that tasted good–her favorite cake was a plain chocolate sheet cake, the ugly duckling at the PTA potluck, but who cared when it was in your mouth? Our Christmas decorations weren’t about looking perfect, either. They were about family.
None of the ornaments on our Christmas tree were duplicates; there was no theme, no matching colors. But each one had a story. The oldest, most fragile ornaments went close to the top, where kids and dogs’ tails couldn’t knock them down. Some of these were fifty years old and more, glass bulbs with the color worn off, faded as old photographs. Other ornaments were handmade, given as gifts, made of paper or string or metal or beads. Horses and dogs, angels and stars, trumpets and bells.
And song. In December our house was filled with carols. We knew so many of them by heart, at least the first verses. Someone would begin–“Oh come, all ye faithful”–and whoever was around would join in. We emptied the dishwasher to “Hark the herald angels sing” and cleared the table to “It came upon a midnight clear.” When we weren’t singing, my mother was playing records by the Vienna Boys Choir or the London Philharmonic.
We went caroling, too. My mother and father, my sister and my two brothers and me. We always picked up a few friends as well, and piled into a couple of station wagons and drove to the houses of those we knew. It happened on a specified night, so we were expected: gingerbread cookies, hot chocolate. Back in the cold car, I leaned against my mother for warmth.
I suppose that’s why I love Christmas still–me, a mostly Buddhist. But I believe in the time of year, the hush of it, the thrill of picking out gifts, the decorations, the music. I believe in the traditions of the season, because the colors and the sounds and the smells make my mother constantly present to me.
The little, unimportant things–frivolous, even–like picking out wrapping paper that I think is especially pretty, are tiny lights in the darkness. The wrapping paper will be thrown away; the recipients of my gifts may not even notice it. My current loved ones may not even like Christmas carols. But I light each one of those lights anyway, for myself, and string them together, hoping beauty makes meaning, hoping it will make meaning again this December, this time of growing dark.