I’ve been inspired by Patience Brewster, an artist and designer of handmade and hand-painted Christmas ornaments, to share my family Christmas traditions. Hmm, that’s a tough subject. I’ve spent Christmas Day in a funeral home. I’ve spent Christmas in a courtroom and on a tropical beach in Trinidad. I’ve spent Christmas alone and with a house full of friends and family. For many years we met up with the neighbors to sing carols on the Eve in the town gazebo, followed by elegant snacks and delectable drinks. For a good stitch of years, it was waiting, fogging the windows, watching for my grandparents car to sail through the snow, up the driveway, the trunk brimming with a load of childhood cheer. I’ve spent Christmas hot and cold, grieving and joyous, loved and lonely. Traditions seem to change with the passing of time and life events.
I tried to think of the one thing that defines December 25th for me over the last 50+ years. I think it is the carols, the music that is a salve to my soul once a year. From records on the massive piece of furniture that served as a source for my dad’s favorite records, to the iPod that fills the house with Pandora‘s eclectic playlist, music defines the tradition of Christmas for me.
That said, I’m resurrecting a post I wrote about the most magical Christmas I ever experienced…
THE CHRISTMAS PONY
It was Christmas day, 1994. Lex had just turned seven years old. Hanni was a month away from being four. They were in their matching holiday nightgowns; the presents were piled high under the tree and overflowed on the chair. A Breyer Horse Barn and new Breyer ponies to fill the stalls sat next to a lovely second-hand child’s saddle. The girls were taking riding lessons at a nearby farm where I was leasing a horse, appropriately named Ariel after Lexie’s favorite Disney character.
After opening presents, we feasted on our traditional “Eggs Schaefer,” toasted english muffins topped with poached egg, homemade gravlax, salmon roe and hollandaise sauce.
As we were finishing the dishes, Jeff noticed an envelope on the back of the tree that had yet to be opened. He handed it to Lex who read it aloud.
Dear Lex and Hanni,
I have one more gift for you guys. It is very special and something that can only be had through sharing. Your mom and dad need to take you somewhere to see what this is.
We pulled on boots, coats, hats, gloves and stomped out to the car. As we were driving I suddenly remembered something. “Can we just stop off at the barn for a minute? I need to give Ariel her Christmas carrots.” Lex and Hanni groaned at the detour on the way to their surprise.
As we all walked into the barn, I slowed in front of the second stall on the left. It had a shiny new sign and a bright pony popped his head over the door. Hanni and Lex stopped to take a look at this newcomer. I walked past and turned just in time to see Lex reading the pony’s stall sign, “His name is Nelson and his owners are…WAIT!! His owners are Lexie and Hannah Schaefer!!”
He was stunning and full of Napoleonic attitude. We lead him out and Dad retrieved the saddle he had slipped into the back of the car.
Don’t come to me with anger or a bad attitude, I will show you attitude.
If you don’t take me seriously, we will part ways and though it doesn’t look like very far to the ground, it will feel like falling a mile.
I will never put you in danger and will trust you will do the same for me.
I am a commitment. I need food, water and exercise. I like long fast rides, treats, a good grooming session and hugs. I will give you my heart in return.
When it is time for me to go, please, know that I did my best and loved you above all others.
Rest in peace little Christmas Pony, you set the bar for Holiday Magic.
Later, when I had the perspective and wisdom of those years spent balancing joy and sorrow:
THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST…
I’ve reached a stage in life when the holidays are a mixed bag of emotions. Like so many people, I mourn the loss of friends and family who will not be with me at this time of year. The first year is always the hardest; that empty seat at the table, the missing tradition so indelibly tied to the loved one who is not present. I have commiserated with friends who recently lost a parent or partner and are dreading the hole in their holiday. It is to be “gotten through” this year, and somehow balanced against the warmth and joy that we should be feeling.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we have to face the past, reconcile it with the present and look for the healing the future will bring. I managed to live for thirty years before true tragedy changed my life on Christmas eve. I have no advice or magic cure to offer those who are struggling with the loss of a loved one this year. The old platitudes of “time will help to heal” are useless when you are living with grief. I only offer: believe it is a process and a deep lesson in personal awareness.
Life is a series of losses and gains. While there is no guarantee they will equal out; there is the knowledge that balance can be found. Allow yourself the tears, the pain, and alternatively do not let it dull your ability to recognize the moments when just letting go to laugh and sing is what your heart and soul need.
After several dark years, there were many others filled with the joy of children, animals and the wonder of seeing life through a child’s eyes. The purity of untainted belief I saw in my daughters, helped me realize there was comfort to be had.
I balance these desperately intense emotions every time the shortest day arrives. It is one day where I will allow myself to contemplate the loss and the gain I have experienced. There will be empty seats at the table. There will be shiny new high-chairs at the table, filled with happy babies. I can not miss the irony of my friend, Mary Iselin, who buried her dad but welcomed a new grandson.
There will be deep dark nights and impossibly bright days. I trust in the impermanence of life. Onward through the fog…
I have one final memory that sums up my family traditions at this time of year…
CHRISTMAS IN MY MIND…
It was a Christmas day like no other, but so like what Christmas really stands for. A day out of life-as-usual. I was not in a hot tropical land, far from family, though there was joy in those days as well. I was not surrounded by children and loving friends, living on a farm, though that time was not free from moments of sorrow. For these reasons I had to write down my day this year. Because the details of the fabric will fade from memory.
I started the day with tea and presents. It was bitter cold so I pushed up the thermostat, grabbed my new book and headed back under the blankets to read. The sun was streaming in painting everything buttery gold, and a marathon of “Christmas Story” played on the TV.
Alice jumped up to join me and we settled in to wait to the thermometer outside to read “tolerable with lots of clothes if you keep moving.”
I promised Alice all week that she would have a special Christmas Day walk. She lost her little pea-brain when we pulled into the barnyard, bouncing around in the truck like it was on fire. Night was happy to leave the hay piles and come in for a good grooming session. I decided the conditions were so icy and frozen, we wouldn’t need a saddle as we would just be walking.
The sky was that impossible blue of deep winter and shadows were long though it was still midday.
On our way to the cabin we “jumped” three large deer, I just caught the flash of their tails as they headed up the mountain. Later, I could see their fresh tracks where they crossed the trail ahead of us. I’m glad to see the wildlife is healthy headed into the deep freeze.
Funny, four-footed friends out for a walk with me up the mountain. It was a Christmas unlike any other, but then, aren’t they all?