Only 358 days until Christmas

by Lorin Michel Thursday, January 1, 2015 7:59 PM

It is the first day of a brand spanking new year, one that is all shiny and filled with possibility and light. As such, it is the perfect day to say “out with the old, in with the new.” Old ways of thinking and new ways of changing. Old downers and new uppers, if you will. It is also my annual de-Christmasing, something I actually look forward to.

I am, as regular readers know, a bit of a Christmas nut. I love the music, I love the movies, I love the decorations, the festivity and the cheer. I even love the shopping as long as I don’t have to leave the house. Each year, on Thanksgiving weekend, I begin the decorating process. I make my husband hang lights outside. I put up the tree and decorate. I put up any other inside decorations I want to put up, including my Byers Choice Carolers. I put Christmas music on the stereo. I am a happy little Christmas clam.

As the month of December roars along, I purchase and wrap presents. Some go under the tree; others get shipped. I enjoy the season, I welcome the cold. I even do Christmas cards.

Then Christmas day arrives and it’s wonderful. The day after Christmas we go wine tasting. And then the week sort of meanders toward New Year’s Eve. By the time that rolls around, I’m done with all the celebrating, if not the joy. Don’t get me wrong. I remain filled with fa-la-la-la-la and all that jazz throughout the year. I am, as Ebenezer Scrooge finally decided, filled with the Christmas spirit.

Sort of. Except when I’m pissed at traffic, or clients, or the world in general.

On New Year’s Day, therefore, I de-Christmas. It’s a tradition and a process. I start by bringing all of the decorations I need to put away into one central location, like the eat-at bar in the kitchen. I take the lights off the tree, as well as any ornaments (which I haven’t actually hung in years so that helps). I go to the storage area and retrieve the myriad of boxes that I need in order to put everything away. I box my big display Santa, a gift from my mom and sister years ago. He’s the size of a small child and stands in the corner. I box my Karen Didion wine Santa, a gift from my husband several years ago. I take the other smaller wine Santa off the table, and the one from the top of the tree (no angels in this wine-soaked house), and put them away. I take the wreath off the front door as well as any lights that have been strung outside.

One by one, things get boxed and put away. Sometimes, like this morning, I do all of this while listening, for the last time, to Christmas music. It’s like the last hurrah.

The season has come to end. We celebrated the beginning of the end last night when snow started to fall around 10:30. It was the perfect way for the Christmas season to finish. We had hot chocolate today and toast, just like I used to have when I was a kid and we had a snow day. As I looked around my de-Christmased house, which always seems oddly empty for the first few hours after everything is put away, I was struck by two things: There are only 358 days until Christmas, and 332 days until re-Christmasing.


Santa Claus is coming to my dining room table

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, December 19, 2012 8:18 PM

Once upon a time, somewhere in the 4th century, there was a man who lived in southwestern Turkey. He was known as the Bishop of Myra and was credited with a number of miracles mostly involving sailors and children. After his death, he became the patron saint of both groups as well as for unmarried girls. He was also given his own day of feast, initially celebrated on December 6th, and his name became Saint Nicholas.

After Pope Julius I decided to assign December 25th as the official celebration of the birth of Jesus, attempting to Christianize what had until then been the date of a pagan midwinter festival, Saint Nicholas’s day of feast also was moved to December 25th for consolidation purposes and the connection was established. A tradition soon developed that had Saint Nicholas visiting the homes of small children on the eve of December 24th. Eventually Saint Nicholas became Sinter Klaas who became Sancte Claus and finally Santa Claus.

It wasn’t until 1810 that Santa Claus was shown – in a drawing by Alexander Anderson – depositing toys in children’s stockings that had been hung by the fireplace. Soon he had transportation, desperately needed in order to reach all of those children, in the form a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, at least according to the song. He moved to the North Pole, thanks to cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was commissioned to do a series of drawings for Harper’s Weekly starting in 1862.Nast also is credited with creating the toy-building workshop and for the naughty or nice mantra. As for his lovely red and white outfit, it was Norman Rockwell who dressed Mr. Claus for a 1921 cover of The Country Gentleman magazine. By the time Coca-Cola showcased its famous depiction of the man in the red suit, his colors had already been well established.

I write all of this because I am a Santa Claus fan, especially when it comes to decorating our house for the holidays. I’m not one of those people who get out of control when it comes to decorating. In fact, I think I’m pretty tame by many standards. Outside, we hang some white lights in several of the trees and shrubs leading up to the front door. Two small white-light laced Christmas trees guard the entrance to the walkway and over the garage door, white icicle lights twinkle. I also put a wreath on the front door. It, too, has white lights. It’s actually quite subdued and lovely.

Inside, we have a 7-foot artificial tree decorated with grape-cluster lights; at the top is a Santa. A heart-shaped Wine Lover sign hangs from his mittened hand. Naturally, stockings are hung by the chimney, and placed strategically throughout the living and dining room are my Byers’ Choice Carolers. I’ve been collecting these wonderful little hand-painted, hand-assembled singers since the late 1980s and have currently amassed at least 30. Almost all are dressed in Dickensian England attire. There are men boldly singing, others singing while holding Christmas trees, still others with ice skates. There is a chimney sweep and his apprentice (naturally, they’re on the fireplace mantle above the stockings). There are children and dogs and cats. There is a woman selling wreaths and an old Christmas witch. And there is my finished collection of A Christmas Carol, all first edition, with Scrooge and Marley’s ghost, the three ghosts (of past, present and future), Bob Cratchet, Tiny Tim and Mrs. Cratchet, Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, the boy with the goose, and a redemptive Scrooge with Christmas presents. They are arranged on my music cabinet, complete with another Caroler wearing a sandwich board for “A Christmas Carol.”

When Kevin completed my collection several years ago, we almost didn’t know what to do. For years, every Christmas, his goal was to find another missing piece of the story, again as a first edition. He’d buy from sellers on ebay as well as in different stores across the country. He’d start in September, making phone calls. With the last Caroler – we think it was Mrs. Fezziwig – we looked at each other. He enjoyed the hunt; I love the Carolers. Now what?

I had bought myself a Santa Caroler years before, and my brother had bought me a Santa in a sleigh being pulled by a single reindeer. A new collection of Santas, also first edition, began. They are from all different times, wearing any number of Santa-approved outfits. They now grace the dining room table. I have six plus an elf plus a really big Santa in the background. Several years ago, my mom and sister sent me another big Byers’ Choice-type Santa who had previously been used only for display in stores. He stands, as big as a small child, on an antique wine box in the entrance way, welcoming visitors.

Santa Claus may be coming to your town but as far as I’m concerned he’s coming to my dining room table, and I’m thrilled to see him. In any incarnation.

The chains in and of life

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, November 28, 2012 8:46 PM

“I wear the chains I forged in life.” So says the ghost of Jacob Marley at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, that infamous tale of redemption from the 19th century. In the story, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who takes the concept of grouchy to new heights, is given the chance to review his life, past and present, and to look into what the future holds if he continues to be bound by the chains he, too, has forged. Chains of fear, distrust, anger, and greed, but also of loneliness. These are Scrooge’s chains but Dickens very cleverly weaves a tale that could just as easily be talking about any human being, then or now.

All of us wear chains that weigh us down. They start when we’re little and trying to find how we fit into this life we have been given. Who’s going to be my best friend in kindergarten? Why do I have to have a baby brother?  We become cautious, or resentful. And as we grow and friendships and love stories, disappointments, fall by the wayside for whatever reason, our chains become heavier and more cumbersome. If we’re cognizant of them, we can remove them, either temporarily or forever, like Scrooge eventually did. More often than not, though, we keep building on our chains, making them heavier and heavier and thus harder and harder to shed. 

I was thinking about my own chains. I have insecurities and mistrust, heavy links formed from worry. I don’t tend towards greedy, and I’m not lonely, but I have chains. Some I have successfully shed; some just get put into the drawer to be worn at another time, like a necklace I’ve forgotten I have.

Think of all the chains we wear by choice juxtaposed with those we can’t see. I have many necklaces made of the finest silver, spun from the richest gold. I pick and choose what I wear based on where I’m going and what I’m wearing. The invisible chains come along too, and those are often dependent on where I’m going, who I’ll be with and my general mood. When I return, most of the chains come off, but the insecurity chain often stays wrapped around my throat, the fear chain lingers and hangs.

Some chains choke, like the collar we use on Cooper when we walk him. We’re trying to train him to not be so manic when we walk, and so the choke chain is employed to get him to behave better. It’s a horrible concept, when you think of it, using the threat of choking to get a dog to perform the way we think and want him to. When our ancestors brought slaves to this country, hundreds of years ago, we used chains to control them. We use Cooper’s chain to control. I don’t like it at all. Dog trainers have told us we can also use pinch collars. Those are chains with inward prongs that clench the dog’s neck and skin. Supposedly they don’t hurt. I can’t bring myself to use one.

White Chains by Edie Nadelhaft

One of the biggest metaphors for chains holding us back or allowing us to move forward are the enormous chains used with anchors on ships. Dispensing one into the depths of the sea keeps the boat or ship in place. A storm won’t move it from its location. But retract it and store it on board, and the ship moves forward easily, peacefully. Anchors with chains can be the weights we carry that keep us from progressing our lives. I find that mesmerizing and sad, and yet I also see the possibility it represents to haul those anchors and chains up, put them away, and move in a different direction.

All of this is easy to say. Changing chains, discarding them, is hard and scary. Look how resistant Scrooge was. And look how all of his people reacted when he had changed – with skepticism and distrust. With their own chains.

The great 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson once said: “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” If we know of these chains early on, we have a chance to change their metal, to break their links and leave them to be swept away in the wind or washed away by the next storm, before they become too strong.

The 19th century French poet Jean Nicholas Arthur Rimbaud wrote of his discarded chains: “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance.” 

This is how I feel about my chains. With all my strength I vow to rip them from my neck, one by one, and cast them aside so that I, too, can dance.

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