The season of rituals

Ritual has an interesting place in the culture I find myself living in. Rituals, especially shared rituals, are falling aside in this era of individualism. What are our remaining shared rituals? I find myself thinking “Well, there’s Sweet Caroline in the 8th inning…” Many of our oldest, time honored rituals seem to be evolving past recognition (weddings used to be a religious service) or falling away altogether. I myself didn’t watch fireworks this 4th of July, and have eaten Thanksgiving dinner at a Denny’s.

When starting a family, especially when far from your own family, one is confronted with the question of what rituals you’ll create. Will you open presents on Christmas Eve? When do you put up the tree? There are other rituals which simply arise through repetition – like when you realize you’ve thrown a last-minute New Year’s Eve party every year for the last three years. And then there are the rituals that are some sort of strange hybrid, like making up your own holidays and investing them with energy, love and meaning until they become as rich and real to you as any holiday that lives on a pre-printed calendar. (Also, it turns out you can now print your own calendars…)

One tradition that I loved from my family of birth, which I had trouble carrying over to my family in Massachusetts, was the Christmas Tree. Living in the land where Christmas trees grow, we’d always go to Jim Hale’s and tromp around the fields getting increasingly cranky and objecting to each other’s selections of tree. (The fight was actually an acknowledged part of the ritual.) Then we’d get a tree that was too tall and struggle to get it home and into the house. Mom would hide in the kitchen “making cookies” while we wrestled the lights onto the timber, cut about two feet off the bottom with a chainsaw, and argue about the best order of cutting the bindings. Then we’d all gather together and hang the ornaments while listening to Roger Whittaker’s iconic Christmas album. It was always a stressful day, but somehow what began in tumult – with broken icy ground underfoot – ended peacefully, eating warm cookies and debating whether Darcy the Dragon was an ironic anti-capitalist morality play in the warm light of our own Christmas tree. (Assuming no one was still on the roof putting the cut-off top of the tree on top of the ridgeline to at least make it look right from the outside.)

I tried to pull as much of this as possible into my home, but my husband does not love hanging lights (so I can’t disappear to make cookies). There are no cantankerous octagenarians selling Christmas trees around here. And our ceiling is now and always has been a mere 8 feet tall. So over time I’ve learned to change the tradition to match our reality. This year, I decided also to give up my hope of recreating what I thought it should be, and lean into what it was at that moment. So maybe I didn’t have all four of us hanging ornaments and talking about their history and what they meant to us. Maybe I wasn’t making cookies (but Grey was). Maybe I would just do the parts that were important to me, and my family would join me if it was also important to them.

The tree got up in record time, and it was much less stressful than usual. But my husband commented afterwards that although he’d never really loved the ritual of adorning the tree, somehow not being in the scrum of snowflake hanging had hollowed out a little bit of the festive feeling he got looking at the tree. As he and I tread through our fifth decade (and third decade together), we begin to understand more about ourselves. A ritual may not need to be fun or enjoyable to be meaningful.

On the flip side, the last year or two I’ve really wanted to pull the Advent Wreath into our own practice of the holiday. I find it hilarious that in a society so willing to create any Christmas crap you can think of (Santa toilet paper? Zombie gingerbread men ornaments?), it’s actually hard to find something that’s a huge part of the religious practice of Christmas. I looked for years for a home advent wreath that would accept thick pillar candles that could burn the season through. I finally found a five-stand candle holder, and discovered Ikea sells advent candles. Woooo!

But you can’t just go light an advent calendar, willy nilly. It needs, well, a ritual. So over the last year or two a small family ritual has quietly evolved. This year, I’ve been particularly enjoying it. We gather as a family in front of the tree, and we talk a little about the theme of this particular week in Advent. Last week was hope. This week was peace. We dwell a brief moment on those, and what they mean in our lives. Then there’s a small reading. Last weekend was the Magnificat. Today, I asked Grey to read The Peace of Wild Things. We light the candle. (Thane likes that part.) We sing a hymn. (I like that part best.) Last week was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (traditional for Advent communion Sunday). This week, I chose “O Come Emmanuel”. And then we are done and return to our evening, the growing line of light fighting against the waning of the sun. It is brief and beautiful.

What are some of your precious rituals? Have you successfully ported rituals from one generation to another? Which ones did you create with intent? Which ones evolved from repetition? Which have you lost forever, and how do you mourn them? What do you wish you had a ritual for – to make deeper and richer?

The children love the angel

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Barry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Puzzle Master

Thane and Adam puzzle by the light of the tree
Thane and Adam puzzle by the light of the tree

I’m not a huge puzzle-doer. Years have elapsed without my doing a single puzzle. But this time of year, I get the urge to do puzzles. It comes back to family. You see, this is the time of year when I have multiple, unscheduled days with people to whom I am related. My sons are no longer in need of constant babysitting, nor have that toddler’s impulse to destroy all that is laid before them. (Although they are forces for chaos and entropy – you should see what happens to a formerly clean room SECONDS after they enter it.)

My family, during my teenage to young adult years, would often do a big puzzle when we all came home from our far-flung lives. There was the massive medieval sayings puzzle (still a favorite!), the three golden magi puzzle (so much of the same color!) and others lost to the mists of time. The glorious thing about a puzzle during the holidays is what it does for the family. Done right, the puzzle is in a place where people pass and invites them to linger. One person sits down to see if they can finish the horse’s head, another person joins them. They sit together, in companionable silence, or chatting. There’s no pressure to “make conversation”, but the conversation likely ebbs and flows. They are not trapped behind a screen or page – mentally isolated from the others around them. But neither are they thrust into the chaos of the activities that swirl around the holidays. And when the holiday is finished – if the puzzle is too – there is a shared sense of purpose, activity and accomplishment. And there are a wealth of small, shared minutes together.

I realized this, of course, when I had a baby and such an activity became impossible. Sitting quietly became an aspiration. Small pieces that could be lost? Inviting tragedy. I longed for the chatting and conversation and the careful piecing of puzzles.

My brother was born on December 20th. My grandmother came to stay that Christmas during my mother’s wait. Family legend is that when my mother went in to labor, she refused to go to the hospital until the puzzle was done so that my grandmother wouldn’t fret. As a consequence, the delivering doctor barely beat my brother to the hospital. (Hey mom – what puzzle was that? Did you save it?)

Impossible puzzle with bonus: a picture of me I like!

This Thanksgiving, I thought it was TIME. My four year old, who might be the Destroyer of Puzzles, is actually a great puzzle aficionado. (He calls himself the Puzzle Master.) Indeed – he’s a bigger contributor to even a 1000 piece puzzle than you might consider likely for a preschooler. At Thanksgiving I reviewed the scant grownup puzzle options in the cupboard. There was a 600 piece mosaic puzzle, a thousand piece snowman and a 400 piece satellite photo of our neighborhood. I’d been looking forward to doing the neighborhood one, and figured I could have some fun roping my neighbors into joining me, so pulled it out.

OMG. It was the hardest puzzle ever. The colors were practically identical. The pieces were barely differentiated in shape. It was the Bataan death march of puzzles. We had many “false positives” that were extensive to unwind, and nearly went blind peering over the puzzle. Adam and I stayed up WAY TOO LATE one night to finally finish it. Such a sense of accomplishment! We took pictures. Which was good – Grey accidentally destroyed it the next morning looking at it.

This Christmas, I planned ahead and bought a (hopefully much easier) thousand piece Christmas scene. We’ve set it up just off the living room next to the “gold tree” with floor pillows. The family wanders past and does a section, then wanders off to play. My sweet Thane – prince of puzzles and shapes – sits next to me and pieces together the scenes. He needs help organizing the pieces to get sections together, but his sense of shape, color and fit is astonishing. We sit next to the glimmering tree and sing Christmas songs together, chatting.

The cycle is renewed, the wheel turns, and the new generation takes up the strains of the old.

Alex, Adam and Thane consider the puzzle
Alex, Adam and Thane consider the puzzle

Welcome Yule!

Christmas arrived abruptly on my street today. It felt like a scene in a Suess/Rockwell/Orwell tale where walking down the street shows happy families trimming trees in window after window. Wreaths appeared on one or two doors. They will appear on many more as soon as the enterprising young Boy Scout who sold to at LEAST four of us on one Sunday afternoon returns with his wares. (Rockwell, I’m telling you.) We’re all just trying to get it done before the Stoneham town Tree Lighting and Trolly Ride to the Zoo Lights. (Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up folks. The Town Council is contemplating a skating rink on the town commons, as soon as they can figure out who will pay for maintenance.)

Anyway, as my Thanksgiving redux involves massive insights like “turkey is tasty” and “pie is good”, and Grey had a medical procedure which is fine and everything’s good. But let’s just say that I really love Dr. Yu – a urologist at Children’s Hospital Boston. Great guy. Top notch doctor. Enough said for the internet.

This year's tree. Thane really wanted colored lights.
This year’s tree. Thane really wanted colored lights.

I figured that for your entertainment, I might talk about a few of the ornaments that adorn our Christmas tree. Our ornament collection started at college graduation, when my parents and his packed up our childhood ornaments for us. In my family, in our senior years we were given leave and budget to recreate the family Christmas tree. I recall I bought some ornaments… but mostly I liked the tree the way it was. After marriage, Adam and I bought a bunch of glass bulbs at the now defunct Ames (many of which bulbs still survive), and had a few nice ones given to us as wedding presents. We’ve continue to add to the collection (in part by stealing them from my mother-in-law). I also like to try to pick up one a year. And of course, we are now adding clay and pipe-cleaner ornaments crafted by my sons.

My silver snowman
My silver snowman

This is a silver ornament my father’s parents gave me at my birth. (Or, well, one presumes sometime well after my birth, since my birth was in September on another continent. I do not remember the actual giving well.) Each of us had a silver ornament: my sister a reindeer mobile, my brother a teddy bear I think, and myself this snowman. For a significant portion of my life, I believed this ornament – crafted of the precious metal as it was – my single most valuable possession. I was obsessed with the “kid living on their own” concept (a la “Box Car Children” or “My Side of the Mountain”) and this astonishingly valuable piece of silver was often my mental ace-in-the-hole to be pawned off for real estate, or a bucket and seed corn, or moccasins… you know. What the moment needed. I used to really like polishing it. When I got older, I used my trumpet polishing cloth. I think I did that as recently as last year. My grandparents are gone now, but their birth-gift still hangs on my tree in a place of pride (even if I don’t stake my retirement on it).

Origami star

At some point in his youth, Adam met with a man who had done the origami Christmas tree for the White House. This star was part of that tree, and at the time my husband learned it, few people knew the secret of this fold. Adam has been patient with me since then. I love holographic paper, and the growing collection of origami holographic stars on my tree does nothing but please me. About once a year I’ll find a scrap of particularly pleasing paper, and beg him to make me a star. He usually obliges. Both sides are lovely. Some of these stars are now ten years or more old.

Keitha - 1973
Keitha – 1973

I am not sure if other people use their trees this way, but we store some of our most important – and most painful – memories on our Christmas tree. This ornament is the most important one on the tree. The inscription reads, “Keitha – 1973”. Keitha was Adam’s older sister, born terribly premature, who lived only a few hours. This little angel, holding its little bell, reminds Adam and I (and now our sons), that she was here. That she lived. That she was loved. And that she is missed. I’m not sure if, without this annual reminder, my sons would know they had a little aunt.

I also have an ornament – not quite as perfect – that I first hung on the tree the year I miscarried two.

Bicentennial Baby
Bicentennial Baby

I wasn’t the only one with special ornaments. This is a baby-ornament of Adam’s. My sister was also a bicentennial baby, and I remember being jealous because it seemed like a big deal to be a bicentennial baby! Adam’s ornament reminds us all of how special he was. How far away it seems now!

I have actually looked for special ornaments for my nieces and nephews when they were born. You know, silver preferably. Enduring design. Engraveable. Seriously – this has been impossible to find. The best I could do was pewter. (I didn’t WANT pewter. I wanted SILVER.) My sons have Swarovski crystal snowflakes from their grandparents, which are lovely. Actually, Grey’s snowflake might be my single favorite ornament on the tree for how it catches the light, but it doesn’t photograph well. I consider it a loss. Look people! I want to buy something expensive? Does no one wish to take my money? Guess not.

So, what are your favorite ornaments? Which are most deeply sentimental to you? Do you have styles of ornaments you particularly like or dislike? (Blown glass? Dinner-plate-sized?) Do you keep your deepest memories shinily on display on your Christmas tree?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Saturday was tree day. After several cumulative hours of aikido and a few tantrums because it wasn’t tree time RIGHT NOW we finally went to go purchase our Christmas tree. As we stood in the bitter winter afternoon winds, surrounded by swirls of evergreens, Grey demanded candy instead and promptly pitched a fit about not getting it. Then when I had my back turned he “went to find daddy”. Ahhhhh fun times. Then when I applied what I thought was an overly mild punishment (loss of DS use for leaving mommy) he cried so hard he threw up. All over the car. I think on purpose. And I broke the external screen on my phone somehow – I don’t know how.

Merry Christmas!

Happily, life then improved. We got home and cleaned up the car. We put an exhausted Thane down for a nap, and erected our festive boughs in the living room. Grey helped decorate the tree. Only two ornaments have been shattered so far. And as we decorated, it began to snow — the first true snowfall of winter a white benediction on our celebration.

Victorious Christmas tree assemblers
Victorious Christmas tree assemblers

I need to figure out how to do better with naps. Despite my attempts to get him down in the afternoon, yesterday Thane’s nap was about 1/2 hour of driving time from church to home (via Staples). By 6 pm he was weeping at everything. And Grey really does still need an afternoon nap most of the time, but NEVER takes one anymore at home. This leads to unnecessarily stressful weekends.

Yesterday I put all three boys down for a nap. First Thane (night night little Pookie!), then Grey (Robby, please make sure Grey goes to sleep), then Adam (he didn’t need much urging). Only Adam got any sleep, and that was 15 minutes while Thane was bopping around his crib before he started being unhappy.

While the boys were Not Sleeping, I was attempting to update my ipod (and mostly failing — my old one has a battery issue) and uploading pictures (and mostly succeeding). Here, for your viewing pleasure, are the latest and greatest in the our familiy snaps!

Early December pictures