Monday, December 6, 2010

The Cliche as Truth

Paul Westerberg--"First Glimmer" (mp3)

It is arguably the most cliched moment of the year: family buys Christmas tree, family puts up Christmas tree, family listens to Christmas music, perhaps in front of a roaring fire, as family decorates Christmas tree.

And yet, it is a powerful time, perhaps like no other. It transcends the cliche. So far, regardless of my age, my wife's age, or the age of our children, the ritual has lost none of its power. Even my jaded teenager, who often will spend entire evenings in her room away from us, not only pushes for decorating of the Christmas, often earlier than we can get our act together, but she also stays around the whole time,

There is something about bringing all of those boxes down from the attic, where they sat forgotten for 11 months. There is something about pulling out the strings of Christmas lights, wrapped carelessly all those months ago around rolled up pieces of newspaper and left alone to the mystery of whether the lights that lit up a year ago will light up again after a year of having done nothing but sit in an attic. There is something about wrapping those lights around a tree, everyone in the room offering an opinion about where they do or don't need to go. There is the turning out of all the lights in the room as the final test of whether those lights have been distributed properly.

And then there are the ornaments. I don't think anybody knows, most of the time, when or where nostalgia is going to surface from the depths of our consciousness. A random sight, smell, touch, sound, heck any sense we've got, can send us into the most profound feeling of memory and loss, because that's what nostalgia is--the reminder of something that once happened, or perhaps happened more than once, that we miss, that we regret the absence of. We know we can't get it back, but despite the sadness of the feeling that comes over us, when it does, we cling to the belief that we can return to the past.

Nothing does that like Christmas ornaments. When you open a box of ornaments, any number of things happen. You immediately see ornaments that you had forgotten about, which is all of them, because when you carry all of those boxes down the stairs from the attic, you know what's it them, but you don't think about it specifically. And then there they are--the ones your mother gave you, the ones your wife made, the ones you got when you were first married, the ones that were given to you upon the birth of your first child, the ones your children made at school, the ones you bought on trips to Maine or New Orleans or France or Hawaii. There are the ones that you can't remember where they came from, but they have been in your family so long that they have earned their own certain cache.

Proust's character may have bitten into a madeleine in order to trigger all kinds of childhood memories, but what would he have done with Christmas ornaments, for contained within that box or those boxes are so many layers of memory and family life. By the time you hang them all, you have written a personal narrative.

A Christmas tree becomes a history book.

If you add the music and the fire, once those songs kick in and the fire crackles in the background, you've created an evening that will practically have you weeping for your own childhood, even while you try to keep the focus on your children and their own memories.

I really can't even explain it. What a feast of pleasure and pain, of now and then, of future and past, of gain and loss. Maybe it isn't true at your house. But I'm guessing that it is.

There are any number of wonderful moments in any December, but I'm not sure that any of them top the time spent putting up, and then pondering, that tree. It's kind of like looking back at all of your years and then all of your family's years, or at least the best of those years, and then trying to come to terms with how those years have passed. And even after those initial family moments, the tree sits there. And some nights, later in December, you sneak back into the room alone and, in the most comfortable way possible, you confront time, mortality, and love.

Westerberg's song may have nothing to do with Christmas, but it has everything to do with nostalgia.


troutking said...

Reason #1,234,548 that Christmas is a better holiday than Hanukkah. Dreidel fun, notwithstanding.

cinderkeys said...

Hey, leave Hanukkah out of it! At least it's under the radar enough to avoid all the commercialization. :)

Anyway ... I hadn't thought about this before, but this post spells out the great thing about these holiday traditions. You get to live the thing you're nostalgic about.