Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peace be with you

The most wonderful time of the year

The soft glow of hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights bashfully illuminate the room. The scent of cinnamon apple candles extinguished the night before still lingers in the house, mixing with the pervading aroma of freshly brewed coffee. My feet are stuffed under the couch cushion and wrapped in a quilt that's drawn up to my torso. On the windows is a hardy layer of frost and fresh snowfall, but beyond them we cannot see, as it is before sunrise.

We sit in silence, contemplating nothing but the moment, making it last as long as possible because we all know by now this level of serenity lasts for only a little longer than a heartbeat. A heartbeat that happens once a year. The only discussion is when someone brings up a short story from years ago - some inside joke that only the four of us could ever truly appreciate - some ancient anecdote from a morning just like this one. The objective is to make a memory like all those in the past, to thread a few strands of memory together, to recreate and respect a tradition. The hope is that in the end we might add up one morning each year, blur them all together over a lifetime, and create one collective experience that's larger than the sum of its parts. Together, with my two brothers and my sister I sit, and we immortalize Christmas morning.

This cozy, winter morning tradition is special to me, I hope that goes without saying. While some people opt to spend the holiday on a tropical getaway or avoid spending time with their families, I keep coming back. Sure I grumble sometimes, and I complain in the days leading up to Christmas as a stressed out American tends to, but when the clock ticks midnight and I'm surrounded by the silence of these snowy Northwoods and the sleep burdened breathing of those I care about the most, I recall with great weight why there is no place else I'd rather be.

There are wrapped gifts under the tree, there always have been. When we were younger it was difficult not to start tearing at them upon waking, but now I think we all agree that makes things go too fast. So instead of small, rabid hands tearing and shredding colorful, patterned paper, there are now more precise measures taken. Instead of crawling and playing in the paper, ribbons, and boxes on the floor while screaming in the faces of the action figures we unwrap, we sit on furniture, find the seams bound with tape, and slowly disassemble the decorative gift-wrapping. Rather than dancing around the room in footy pajamas while shouting praise to Santa Claus because we received that one gift we really wanted, we turn and convey our gratitude with “thank you”, give a hug, shake a hand, etc.

When we were younger the cat would stalk around the wrapping paper on the floor, and we'd pick him up and put him in a box to see how he liked that (he didn’t). It was the classic case of an empty box being more entertaining than a purchased toy. Now, I sit and sip coffee out of a snowman mug, and instead of reading the instructions to the new gadget I got, I play fetch with the dog, using a ball of rolled up wrapping paper - it’s good that some things never change.

One year, after it got light out, we went sledding as a family. The snow was still deep enough this time of year in these parts, and we could load up four or five people in a big utility sled and slide down the side of an old gravel pit. I remember that year. We found out how to make the sled go the fastest according to how we stacked body weight into it, which was soon followed by the discovery that it was a terrible idea to put a 10-year-old in the front of the overloaded sled. Our last run of the day, the sled caught a patch of gravel, and the whole thing nose planted, sending my brother Jed face first into a ravine of rock, ice, and snow. The result being a gash the width and depth of Lake Superior across his forehead and a crimson trail across the pearly white snow.

Now days, everyone goes back to bed at 9 a.m. - it's safer that way.

I guess that's what happens when everyone is up at 4 a.m., though. See, we all agree to wake up at a set time in the morning - a rule put in place when the youngest were always chomping at the bit for everyone else to get up in the wee hours, waking up us old folks out of a dead sleep because they wanted to see if Santa had visited during the night. I'm the oldest, and in recent years I've been blamed for being the Grinch of the group - called out for being boring and old, even ruining Christmas all together on certain occasions simply because I want to sleep until sunrise. These are all baseless accusations of course, on account of the fact I started half the merriment policies we have in place today… grumble, grumble.

All in good fun though! See it’s the jarring and the playful whimsy of the Christmas spirit that I cherish the most. What other time of year do you get to act like a fool? When else is the hearth stoked with such compassion, steeped in such tradition, calm, peaceful, and plump? I am fortunate to have these warm memories to fall back on, and I am sure you have your own stories to conjure back for the season.

Do yourself a favor and tell the tales of Christmases long, long ago. You might just find that old comfort of something familiar, and we could all use a little familiarity right now. Collect yourself and find a warm memory to laugh or smile at, especially if you share it with someone else. And after you've done that, find some assurance and strength, go make a new memory - however bold, daring, or adventurous, or however traditional, safe, and sound you prefer (please exercise caution if gravel pit sledding). Stop, breathe, relax, and channel this wonderful season. Merry Christmas and peace be with you.

“Twas Christmas broach'd the mightiest ale; 'twas Christmas told the merriest tale; a Christmas gambol oft could cheer the poor man's heart through half the year.”
- Walter Scott

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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