It’s Jan. 7 as I begin to write this column. I’ve just finished “taking down Christmas” for another year. I always leave Christmas up until after Jan. 6—Epiphany in Christian tradition. By then, I’m ready to put Christmas away.
I love the ritual; the small, silent, solitary ceremony of this dismantling. First to go back in the boxes are the cards I’ve received and displayed, either framed or simply set on shelves. They’re beautiful to look at. They’re also beautiful because someone cared enough to send them. Into the tin they go until next year. I look at each one, read the name inside, say a silent thank-you for that person. Does that qualify as a ceremony? I think so, for me at least.
Next, the fabric wreaths come off the doors. A set of knitted bells came from someone at the place where I boarded during one of my internships. They were from a mother and daughter who were kind to me when I truly needed someone to be kind. Then the small carving of Mary, Joseph and the baby. This was a gift from a man in my last church, who made one for every household in that church. A gorgeous angel, which was a surprise gift from a teenage girl who, for months, had sat rolling her eyes at everything I said in church.
Then there’s the tree. The fragile things first. Off comes the set of bells given to me in my first year of ministry. They’re made of empty coffee creamers, covered in tinfoil and strung together with old ribbon. A young mom with two kids who was caught in an unspeakable situation. I did what I could for her that fall. At Christmas time, she showed up with that gift. They’re precious to me. The tinfoil is falling off and I use more tape every year to keep it on. I’ve long lost track of her, but the memory is intense.
Then some wreaths crocheted by my mom, a goose egg turned into a nativity scene (really!) by a talented friend, some reindeer made by children in my life, the tiny china bell that Santa Claus gave me the Christmas I was three, and an amateur attempt at creativity by Nate and me the first Christmas we were married. Every one of them has a story and a relationship attached. I handle them with something more than caution. If I were to lose them, the stories would remain, of course they would, but my goodness it’s a beautiful thing to have them to touch, to see, to physically focus the memory.
One year when I was very little and my brother and sister weren’t yet born, my grandmother cut out a picture of the Coca-Cola Santa. An advertisement in the local paper. He was holding a coke, of course. He had a finger to his lips, going “shhhh.” My grandmother pasted that picture on some old cardboard and it sat among the branches of our tree every year. When our parents were downsizing, they asked us three what we wanted from the Christmas decorations. Each of us, independent from the others, said we wanted that Santa. We shared him for several years. One of us would have him, then mail him to the next for the following year. Sadly, no one knows where he is now.
Finally, the angel on top of the tree. It was there as far back as I can remember. It was always the last thing to go up, placed by my father. She has a porcelain face, fabric gown and, unexplainably, wings made out of cardboard from a girl guide cookie box (you can see it on the back of her wings) covered with tinfoil. I have her now. She goes back into her box with memories and thanksgiving.
So here I am. The living room has much more room now that the tree is gone. I’ll be finding needles for months, testimony to the persistence of the season. That’s as it should be, I think to myself.
I’m writing this because I have a feeling that many of us are the same in this way. The small, precious things that matter, that give shape to the seasons of our lives. The ceremony, however you define it, that frees us to feel the feelings and honour them.
In these times of forced solitude for the sake of community, ceremony can be quietly persuasive. It can serve as a reminder of the deep down things that no virus with a fancy Greek name can take away.