Monday, December 27, 2010

Winter Wonderland

The yardstick reads 24 1/2 inches.

The Laughing Buddha is buried beneath it. Jim and I are buried, too--waiting for the plows to spring us from our wintry prison.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Snow

Today we were supposed to drive to my brother and sister-in-law's in south Jersey for Christmas Part 2--when the extended Gould family gathers to celebrate the holiday.

But Nature had other ideas. Predictions of over a foot of snow and blizzard-like conditions led to a decision to reschedule. By 9:00am Jim and I were in that funky void between having something--then suddenly nothing--to do.

I'm not always able to shift gears in these situations, especially when there's a degree of disappointment involved. But this wasn't one of those times. A cup of coffee later we had a new plan: go see a movie (True Grit), then eat toasted ham and cheese sandwiches (from last night's leftovers) and watch the Jets game (they lost to the Bears.)

All that relaxing has sent Jim off to take a nap, creating a small window of opportunity for me to write. It's so quiet I can hear the cat snoring softly on the couch beside me. Outside the window the wind gusts whip the lacy curtains of snow in three directions simultaneously.

I was totally looking forward to spending the afternoon with my family. But things tend to work out the way they are meant to. So I'm happy to be hunkered down in my house, appreciating the beauty and ferocity of this--the first storm of the winter--from within the warmth and safety of its walls.

Friday, December 24, 2010

‘Tis the Season: Finale

Christmas Eve is the best night of the year. The prep work is done and it’s time to sit back and take it all in. The way the presents are arranged under the tree (Mariah clearly approves.) The way the house smells. The anticipation. The shiny-and- bright-ness of it all.

I’m really feeling the season this year. Yep, it’s one of “those” years. I’m genuinely joyful. And grateful to be sharing some holiday cheer (and some really good food) with people I love. I even baked two batches of cookies from recipes I’ve never tried before (and probably won’t try again.)

When Jim asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said to spend an afternoon with him in Milford, PA. It’s one of those towns along the Delaware River that were once prosperous—but now you can’t quite figure out why anyone goes there. We more or less tripped over it last year on our way back from Narrowsburg, and had one of those spontaneously great experiences that I wanted to repeat (always a chancy proposition, I know.)

We drove out on Saturday and did what there was to do: stroll the streets, browse in a few shops and galleries, enjoy the simply chic holiday decorations, and end up sipping a glass of wine at Bar Louis. It’s a subterranean bistro in the Hotel Fauchere, with a nice vibe and friendly staff. This time we had dinner there—something we didn’t do last year. And we spent some time chatting with a cross-dresser named Bridget—also an experience we hadn’t had before. We headed back to our car in the glow of thousands of fairy lights strung through the trees. The experience embodied what Christmas means to me. Moments cherished and relationships acknowledged for their true value.

Tonight we’ll have dinner with Maryanne and Tom—a gathering that began three years ago and has quickly become one of my favorite holiday traditions. Tomorrow will be a whirlwind of exchanging presents, visits with our kids, and consuming way too much sugar. But today is about the slow build. The wonder. And the wishing, and hoping, that Santa brings you exactly what you want.

Merry Christmas, indeed...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'Tis the Season: Part 2

Jake said, “The fake tree was a good investment, Mom.”

Wednesday we decorated the Christmas tree at my house, and yes—it’s a fabulously fake white one. The fact that it’s fake—and white—means it’s as far from my family’s holiday tree tradition as you can get.

That tradition—which I’ve failed to carry on—is one of my absolute favorite childhood memories. My dad would wrestle a fragrant Frazer Fir into a stand and string it with lights. When I was in my teens, I was allowed to help him arrange the fat colored bulbs, backed with cookie-cutter shaped aluminum reflectors, so that the colors were perfectly balanced.

When we went to bed Christmas Eve, that’s all that was on the tree. Next morning we awoke to find it transformed by Santa and his elves. It’s branches hung with ornaments, sugar cookies and candy canes, then layered with a shimmering veil of carefully placed tinsel. It set the tone for many a magical morning.

I married a Jewish man who was anti-holiday to boot, so until Jake was born I dared do no more than put up a tiny tabletop tree. Until I reached my parents’ house on Christmas day and sat in the glow of their big tree with the fat colored bulbs, I never felt that the holiday was really complete.

Jake’s arrival changed that. We became fast friends with a couple that made annual excursions to Pennsylvania to cut down their tree with a saw. And we tagged along. Our trees were never taller than what our golden retriever could knock over with a strong swipe of her tail. But I loved stringing the lights, hanging the ornaments and tossing the tinsel.

Divorce put an end to the tree-cutting, but Jake and I created a new tradition of venturing to the same nursery each year, picking out a tree, and decorating it together. One year his stepsister Carly, who only celebrates Hanukkah, asked to help. She brought Jake an ornament to hang on the tree—and a new tradition was born. Then came the December when, overcome with the desire to knock tradition for a loop, I bought the white tree during a post-Christmas 50% off sale. And began collecting blue, white and silver ornaments to decorate it with.

Which led to Wednesday night and Jake’s blessing. Funny that he came out with it in a year when I’ve found myself missing the smell of evergreen. And second-guessing my impulsive purchase. But after Jake and Carly had gone home, and I sat in the glow of the white lights admiring their handiwork, I realized that it’s not the tree that symbolizes Christmas to me. It’s the ritual of decorating it. Jake and Carly are my elves...making holiday magic.

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Tis the Season

Traditions. The holidays wouldn’t be “The Holidays” without them. Rituals that range from digging out boxes of carefully preserved ornaments to lighting candles in a certain in order. From using handed-down recipes to taking daylong excursions to cut down the perfect tree—complete with snowflakes and hot chocolate.

I’m big on traditions—by which I mean that I love doing things, going places, and sharing experiences with the same people—again and again. I enjoy what I call “experiential” gifts far more than materials ones. And I’m pretty sure I’ve always been this way. My parents certainly set the stage. After 60 years of marriage, they still celebrate Christmas the same way they always have—by staying home all day, opening gifts at a leisurely pace, and eating a rib roast dinner. The only difference is that all of their kids are not there with them.

Like them, I’m resistant to altering the traditions I love. For instance, Jim is itching to spend Christmas snowbound in a remote cabin—while I can’t imagine not being with my family. That said, I’m discovering that it can be fun to switch things up a little. This year’s Thanksgiving dinner was hosted by my sister Deborah and her husband Mark in Elkton, Maryland. Jim and I arrived earlier than expected and he suggested stopping at one of Elkton’s clams to fame: The Howard House. It’s known as a crab place but we go for the legendary Bloody Mary’s. And because we’d decided to book a hotel room for the night to avoid the long and exhausting round-trip drive (another break from tradition), I said yes. Alcohol on Thanksgiving—what a treat!

I called our hosts to invite them to join us (they live within walking distance), and wasn’t surprised when Mark declined. But I was shocked when, 10 minutes later, my sister walked into the bar. Hot on her heels came my son Jake, who drove down on his own instead of with me (another first.) We shared some laughs and some stories and—best of all—the excitement of doing something new and different. A feeling that stayed with me all day. When we got back to the house, my brother and sister-in-law were disappointed to have arrived a little too late to join the party. By the time we said goodbye, we all agreed that a new family tradition had been established.

This week my friend Marla and I engaged in our annual holiday "experience." Like total tourists, we meet at dusk at the tree in Rockefeller Center. Take a few pictures. Then wander along Fifth Avenue, check out the displays, and end up grabbing a healthy bite to eat. Lately we’ve chosen days so bitter cold that we're forced to slip into Saks, Bendel’s or Bergdorf’s to warm up. This year we decided to go see the windows at Barneys and made a pit stop at the Plaza. Next thing we knew, we were sipping festive red drinks in the balcony bar—a fun new twist on the "let's stop in here to get toasty" tradition!

Traditions aren’t just about nostalgia or being old-fashioned. They ground us in a time and place. They create a sense of order and belonging. Like a compass, they help point us in a familiar direction and steer us toward a friendly destination. And they sure come in handy when our lives seem to be spinning out of control. Maybe that’s what the “tidings of comfort and joy” business is all about?