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Personal essay: “Laying the foundation”

All the feelings, all the fondness, all the happy thoughts that emerge from slumber in my head when the first notes of a Christmas songs begins to play in November, the sense of warm and fuzzies that come over me as the pretty lights come up on the balconies, the tree in the town square glowing red and cozy in the grey starless dark, all of that comes from one brief period in my childhood. I can even pinpoint them within a few years.

I had a very lovely teacher in my first three years of school and she might be the subject of another essay, but for now I will only note the influence she had on me in causing me to think of this holiday in the way I do, despite the knowledge that it has been turned into a distressing, stress filled capitalistic thing and far from my ideal image in my head.

It would all start at the end of November, or whenever the first of advent came along. The school I went to had a time honored tradition when all of us kids would come in earlier than normal, before the sun had risen with a rosy glow and gather in the soccer field. After the older kids and teachers had been supplied with torches we marched, class by class off into the gloom, lit by all the torches to the nearest church, a stone church many hundreds of years old with pretty colorful windows that I would always gaze up at in wonder as we gathered in the pews to listen to a choir sing the first traditional Christmas hymns.

I vividly recall the march, holding the hand of the classmate walking next to me, then looking back to see the long trailing line of torches stretching far back into the distance.

After we returned, the morning light making the torches unnecessary, our teacher would sit us down in the classroom, offering up gingerbread cookies and orange juice boxes, then read a passage from a kiddified version of the story of the gospels, where the story is told from the point of view of the donkey Mary rides on. This she did every year, the same story, without fail. This is one tradition which probably created a fondness for the Christian story behind the holiday, despite the fact that I never really believed in the Christian god. My old teacher was one of the first storytellers I knew and she encouraged me in other ways as well, but again, that is a tale for another time.

Christmas would sneak more and more into my life then, though there was precious little snow in those days. For Saint Lucia we had another event, which the entire school participated in and unlike most other girls I was never that eager to be Lucia herself as we performed for gathered parents and other family. I remember one time when we did The Twelve days of Christmas and I was the one holding up the sign of “Two turtle doves” with great pride. Our singing might not have been pretty, but we tried so very hard and afterwards there was the reward of saffron buns and lemonade for all.

My mother was always good about letting me help out with the baking, as soon as she could trust me not to hurt myself in some way. Christmas time was no exception, where I would be given my own little piece of dough to knead and roll and make into shapes that would bake in the oven to perfection. And if I ended up eating my own buns and cakes way before Christmas, well that was my choice.

Another school event I adored was a special day dedicated to Christmas preparations, where they set up different stations where you could do various things, like make candles, cut paper for ornaments, makes Christmas card from decorative items and so on. There were always more stations than you had time to visit in one day, with lunch included, so I remember the slight agony in picking the very best stations to visit. I made cards and ornaments, the scent of glue and the feel of silky paper between my fingers rushing forward even now. I baked things and brought all of it back in a bag for my parents and they would all get put out somewhere, adorning our home.

As Christmas neared and the long awaited winter break from school was upon us the school held a concert of sorts, where we all gathered in the gym and sang Christmas songs together, after which we would have a special Christmas lunch.

The concert I recall the most is the one when I was 9 years old, because that time the principal led us in a rousing edition of White Christmas, starting it off with a little speech of “maybe we can make some snow come this year”. And wouldn’t you know it, when I woke up on the morning of Christmas Eve that year; the whole world was covered in white. Unfortunately, that year I had a bit of a cold and was not allowed to head out until Boxing Day, when the milder temperatures had already begun to gnaw on the whiteness outside.

Before I move any further I must make a note of the Advent calendars I had then. Twenty-four doors that opened and within there was a piece of chocolate or some chewing gum. I had one treat for every day, with a larger treat for Christmas Eve, increasing the anticipation for the main event with each door that was laid open, each gap on the surface of the calendar.

On the night before Christmas Eve our house would be filled with last minute cooking smells. The rice porridge for breakfast the next day smelling of cinnamon and sugary cream, the Christmas ham getting its final coating of mustard and breadcrumbs in the oven and even when my brothers and I were small we were allowed to stay up past our normal bedtime and have a cozy moment with our parents, sampling the ham on crisp bread with mustard slathered on. We would decorate our tree together and play the first Christmas songs, our home glowing with the warm light of anticipation.

On Christmas Eve itself we followed the normal traditions of most anyone, beginning with a breakfast of the rice porridge, which I would always drown in syrup, everyone keen to see who would get the almond hidden in those white, creamy depths.

At about two in the afternoon the family visitors would arrive, grandmother and grandfather and uncle, all of them bearing more gifts to get propped up under the tree. Us kids would be dressed up in our best as we greeted them politely, before we all descended on the kitchen table where coffee and all the Christmas baked treats had been laid up.

But at 3 pm we had to be finished, as that was when the traditional Disney special would air on TV, hosted by the kindly old man I normally saw presenting nature shows. Us kids always huddled close to the tree, knowing that as soon as the show was over, they would finally hand out the gifts.

Most families go through the charade of the father or uncle going out, then coming back in dressed as Santa, and he would hand out the gifts. Unfortunately, I had seen through this ruse at a young age and quickly educated my brothers on the matter, so my parents never bothered with it, though my father would put on a Santa hat as he read out the names on the presents. One year they made the mistake of leaving the presents for after dinner and I do not think me and my brothers have ever been as impatient at a dinner table before.

The present opening would always be an explosion of paper and pent up energy and afterwards me and my brothers would retreat to our rooms to explore what we got, leaving the adults with some peace and quiet, until it was time to have dinner. The presents then really became a sort of payment of the adults, so that they could enjoy some relaxing grown up time for a while.

There would always be some emptiness after the presents had all been opened, something my mother alleviated when she caught onto the English tradition of hanging up a sock on our door, then filling it after we had gone to bed. On the morning of Christmas Day we would then emerge to find candies or small toys in the sock, extending the excitement for us. For me the surprise was just as grand as what was in it.

I cannot say what changed that made the magic lessen as the years passed. Part of it was caused by us moving and me changing schools after fourth grade. Over the course of a couple of years I not only lost that great teacher, who would greet us with a santa hat on, that last day before Christmas break, who would read Christmas stories as we sat in our benches nibbling cookies, but also that school, with its rather charming Christmas traditions. There were no special concerts or Christmas decoration days in my new school and soon enough the Lucia celebrations were hosted by the kids in the school who really sang the best, leaving the rest of us as the audience.

But the foundations in my heart had already been laid by then and the memories from those years still affect how I think about the holiday today, with fondness and a desire to recreate those cozy moments and situations, making my own ornaments when I feel especially creative and bake my own goodies.

It really hits home, if nothing else does, that what I truly value about Christmas now is not the capitalistic aspect of it, of running around buying gifts for everyone…It’s the overall mood of it. It’s the light, the candles and the soothing music, the baked treats and the wonderful smells. And those calm, cozy moments spent with family and friends.

I think we can all raise a glass of our favorite Christmas beverage to that.

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