One of my family’s favorite children’s books about Christmas is Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren. Better known as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, Lindgren re-creates the festivities in a small Swedish farming village, as seen through the eyes of one little girl who celebrates with her brothers, parents, grandfather and neighbors.
While there are several elements that the characters’ observance has in common with ours – like them, we bake cookies, decorate a tree, talk about Santa, partake of a feast or two, and even live on a similarly configured farm -- one small detail in the book brings a smile to my face every time I read it. “I’m going to tell you how we celebrate Christmas,” the young narrator declares, and then offers the first step. “Three days before Christmas, we bake ginger snaps.”
Three days before Christmas? I find myself thinking each time. That’s when you begin preparing? I suppose it’s admirable that they manage to proceed with business as usual for the first 21 days of the month, but it also sounds a little abstemious. For us, there’s usually one or two solid days of rest after Thanksgiving and then it’s time to swing into Christmas mode.
But unlike holiday decorations in the drugstore in October, starting in on the Christmas theme soon after Thanksgiving doesn’t bother me. I think it’s fun to draw the festivities out, and four weeks never seems like an inordinate amount of time to me. Regardless of which winter holidays you celebrate, December is a really special time, a fact that struck me anew three years ago when I’d just re-entered the professional workplace. The corporate environment seems like it would be the last place where you’d feel overcome with holiday spirit, but the influx of vendors’ gifts and company party invitations underscored for me how welcome a break the jolliness of December provides from the rest of the year. Even if the baskets of cookies that the vendors send aren’t that tasty and the office parties can be more rote than meaningful, I love the fact that there’s a sense of universal agreement that this is the month for frivolity. Though it might be somewhat removed from the Christian meaning of Christmas, I really appreciate the idea that December is when we’ve generally all agreed to eat more decadently, socialize with more people, and indulge in more superfluous spending than we might at other times of year.
So our holiday observances start early in the month and extend all the way to New Year’s. Although the narrator of Christmas in Noisy Village makes the last-minute bustle of cookie baking and tree cutting sound merry, I like being able to enjoy each component without any rush. Earlier this week I took part in a holiday cookie exchange, at which 14 women each made several dozen cookies and then we went around buffet-style and made up plates using a little of each, which was a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season. Next week we’ll attend our town’s tree lighting and Tim’s holiday concert. The following Saturday we’ll buy our tree and decorate our house in preparation for the big party we host every year for the nonprofit board on which I sit. (Filling up the house with delicious food and appreciative guests is one of my favorite ways to celebrate Christmas.) We’ll take part in our church pageant and our Christmas Eve children’s service too. Weather permitting, we have an annual tradition of walking to church on that day.
No one in my family is particularly fond of shopping. Of course, we can’t bypass that part altogether, but we’ll avoid it as much as we can. We’ll make candy for the kids’ teachers, pick up a Dunkin Donuts gift card for their bus driver, and do some other creative projects for other gift recipients. Speaking of creativity, it’s about time for us to do our annual Christmas card photo shoot. Light snow is predicted for this weekend, which will make for a pretty background. Last year we got the kids, the dog and two cows in one tight frame; maybe this year we can wedge in a couple of sheep as well. And then there’s the beloved-but-dreaded task of drafting our Christmas card poem, a 12-stanza extravaganza intended to commemorate the whole year in iambic pentameter. It’s an exercise in writer’s anxiety when I sit down to do it, but being done with it always gives me a grand sense of accomplishment.
And one of my very favorite parts of the season comes tonight. Our church puts on a greens sale the first Saturday of December every year, and on Friday evening volunteers prepare for it by setting up all the boughs, wreaths and other forms of greenery. The function hall fills up with the scent of pine, and the display tables glitter with decorations for the wreaths: bells, ribbons, bows.
I always manage to be one of the last to leave just so I can spend a moment in the darkened hall, surrounded by the evergreens – taking in the tranquility, because that too is part of the holiday season, and so different from the merry chaos of the fair itself the following morning. Shopping and hand-crafting; feasting and baking; bustle and tranquility; spirituality and frivolity. It’s a season of contrasts. All of it worth treasuring, all month long.