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Posts Tagged ‘traditions’

Hello, friends. Here we are, two days before Christmas, and I am feeling all the emotions: seesawing between loneliness and hope, heavy sadness and sharp, sudden joy.

On the long list of things that are different this year, my holiday traditions (like most people’s) have been upended. I’m not in Texas with my family, and I am also still figuring out life (and Christmas) after divorce. I love December and all its rituals, large and small, and this year I have had no choice but to adapt and remake so many of the traditions I love.

I wrote last week about how I put up my tiny tree, not the same as the big one we had for years, but still twinkly and lovely. Many of my ornaments remain packed away, for now, but the ones I’ve chosen all have deep and sweet associations. I cried when I found our old stockings packed away in a box, but I pulled out the snowflake hangers, and my guy and I bought new stockings, for a new season.

When J and I sent Christmas cards, we’d pick out a photo, design a card on Shutterfly, order stacks of them, then hand-address them all in one go, sitting at the kitchen table with Christmas music playing. This year, that honestly felt like too much. (I didn’t send cards at all last year.) I bought a few different sets of letterpress cards and have been addressing them in small batches, scribbling notes to faraway family and friends and sealing each one with a poinsettia sticker. The ones I’ve received are Scotch-taped to the doorframe, reminding me of the folks I love and wish I could hug.

There will be no Christmas Eve service in Texas this year, but I’ll tune into a Zoom listening party for the carol choir I’ve participated in. We won’t have a traditional menu, because we are making this part up as we go along. I won’t go running in my parents’ neighborhood or bump into friends from high school, but I’ll run along the Eastie trails I love, and wave at the few local friends I can still see in person.

It won’t look like this forever, I know. But this is how it looks now. And some days, it’s enough to simply acknowledge that it looks different, and keep on making it new.

Merry Christmas, if you’re celebrating. See you next week.

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This year, it seemed that fully half my friends (at least, the ones who post on Instagram) hauled their Christmas decorations out in early November. I couldn’t fault them for it: as my sister and others have said, 2020 needs all the joy it can get. My mom famously decorates early every year (my parents have three Christmas trees), but everyone else seemed to jump on that bandwagon this year. It made a lot of sense to me, but I just was not ready to put up my own decorations.

Decorating the tree is one of my favorite Christmas traditions: I am one of those people who loves tons of (small, white) lights, and for whom nearly every ornament has a story. But since my divorce, that ritual is a bit fraught. Last year, I had my friend Lauryn come over and help me decorate, and this year, I asked my guy to help me do it.

We hauled my little tree and assorted decorations out of the basement on a Saturday night, and assembled it on the fireplace. I strung the lights that night (he provided moral support and Christmas music), and we waited another week to do the ornaments. I sort of like the look with just the lights, and it felt like a small acknowledgment of Advent: waiting, letting the process take its time.

Last weekend, we unwrapped a few cherished ornaments (plus two new ones I bought at Albertine Press), and hung them on the tree. And we also bought stockings at Target, and hung them on the snowflake hangers I’ve had for years. Old alongside new.

I can’t erase the memories of Christmases past, nor do I entirely want to. But we are moving forward, and I’m so pleased with the effect. It’s cozy and twinkly, and since I’m home all the time these days, I get plenty of chances to enjoy it.

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As a lover of Christmas (and twinkle lights), I have a soft spot for December. It usually feels both hectic and peaceful: holiday celebrations and travel prep and last-minute gifts alongside the hush of quiet evenings and diamond-bright, blue-sky mornings.

This year, of course, December feels different: I’m not packing for Texas, not finishing up a semester of full-time work, not going to Advent services or planning to sing carols in church on Christmas Eve. I am trying to wrap my head around a low-key, cozy, local Christmas. But I am still observing a few tiny rituals of the season, and I thought I’d share them with you. They include:

Stringing twinkle lights on a Christmas tree – I put mine up last weekend, well behind the pandemic-inspired holiday rush but with plenty of time to enjoy it before Christmas.

Lighting the good candles, as often as I want.

Pulling out a few cherished mementoes, like the metal mailbox with a little moose on it and the words “Merry Kiss Moose” in red letters. And the coat-hanger tree I’ve had since junior high, which still – miraculously – works, at least for now.

Listening to The Holiday soundtrack while I clean or cook or write. And watching the movie itself, which is a perennial fave.

Addressing Christmas cards and wondering whether I need to buy more stamps. (Related: texting friends to ask for snail-mail addresses.)

Pulling out my now-worn Advent book and flipping to my favorite essays.

Seeing those plush reindeer antlers and noses on cars around town, which always make me smile.

Revisiting Shepherds Abiding, a tale of Mitford at Christmastime that charms me and chokes me up every. single. year.

Searching out stocking stuffers (this time, for my guy).

Looking up at birds’ nests in bare tree branches.

Snapping photos of holiday decorations around town.

Humming the carols I love, and pulling out a few favorite albums: Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, James Taylor’s At Christmas, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

Following along with Ali Edwards’ December Daily stories, even though I’m not making a scrapbook myself.

Pulling out the fleece-lined tights and handknit accessories.

Remembering Christmases past: red felt stockings on the mantel at Mimi’s, candles in the sanctuary at my parents’ church, the words of Luke 2 from Mom’s worn old Bible, Christmas-morning shenanigans with my nephews.

What are your tiny December rituals?

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ornaments light book

Hello, friends. Here we are in December, and like every other month in this strange year, it’s going to be a weird one. For the first time in my life, I will not be in Texas for Christmas; I will (still) be hunkering down here in Boston, drinking tea and doing freelance work and spending time with the few folks I am safely seeing. It’s the right decision, but it feels strange and sad, as you might expect.

I struggle with the short, dark days every year (hence my light box, Vitamin D pills and plenty of twinkle lights). This year, I am making an extra effort to look for the light, so every weekday this month, I’ll be sharing one of the ways in which I’m finding joy and comfort these days. The first one is hinted at above: the traditions of the season are bringing light, even though they look different this year.

Every year since I was a high school senior, I have pulled out my copy of Watch for the Light to revisit the poetry, theology and wisdom in its pages. I found it on an endcap at the National Cathedral gift shop, and it sparked a love of Advent that runs deep, nearly 20 years later. I have complicated feelings about church these days (and I’m not going to any in-person services this year), but I love the way Advent explores darkness and hope, longing and anticipation. Feels especially apt this year.

I’m observing a few more of my own traditions: listening to Christmas music, decking my halls, shopping for gifts (which will mostly be shipped, this year), and remembering Christmases past. Some of those associations are bittersweet: they involve faraway friends, my former church, family I won’t see this year, the life my ex-husband and I used to have. But they are there, inescapable, so I might as well acknowledge their presence. And there’s a lot of sweetness to remember, too.

I hope you’ll join me this month in looking for the light, and sharing yours, if you’re so inclined. xo

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Singing the season.

One essential part of the holiday season for me is the music.

I know I’m not alone in this: you can hardly walk into a store in December without hearing tinny remixes of classic carols or Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want for Christmas is You.” (I confess to a certain affection for Mariah, mostly because my sister loves that song. She and her college housemates used to slide in their socks down the hallway, singing it at the tops of their lungs.)

I have been steeped in the familiar carols all my life: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and others. We always began Advent services at Brookline with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I know multiple verses of so many carols (including that one) by heart.

Every year, I remember the long-ago rendition of “O Holy Night” sung by two of my dad’s friends at our church in Dallas: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. At least once each December, I wake up humming “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and think of George, who patiently led our church youth choir through it again and again. I have favorite versions of “Go Tell it On the Mountain” (James Taylor) and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Ella). And I wait all year for the chance to sing anything involving a Gloria.

This year, thanks to some local friends, I joined a carol choir in my neighborhood. We’ve been meeting on Thursday and Sunday nights since early November, gathering at a nearby church or in Peter and Giordana’s dining room. The music we’re singing is an eclectic mix of well-known classics (“The First Noel” and “Adeste Fideles”), slightly lesser-known carols (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “The Friendly Beasts”), and several pieces I’d never heard of, including one in Latin and one in Spanish.

I’d forgotten how much fun it is to sing with a choir, to hammer out melodies and harmonies one note at a time until it starts to sound something like music. I’ve loved standing between Melanie and Ann-Marie, all of us sipping herbal tea from Giordana’s collection of mugs, as we stumble our way through “Puer Nobis Nascitur” or “A la Nanita Nana.” I’ve been amazed at Anna’s soaring soprano descants and sense of humor, and deeply appreciated Gillian’s handy pitch pipe and her wry, sharp musical commentary. And Peter, who steers this ship every year, has brought us through the last few weeks with skill and grace.

I’ve been humming these tunes as I walk from the train to my office or putter around the apartment, making tea or washing dishes. I’ve also been playing the King’s College Cambridge carols album on repeat, and I went over to the glorious Harvard carol service last week, and sang my heart out standing next to someone I love.

I had wondered if, this year, the music of the season would sound like loss: the loss of several communities where I used to sing. But I am happy to report that the songs are still there, and so is the community. It just looks different. This year, it looks like Elsa’s sweet smile and Rudi’s quiet warmth. It sounds like Joe’s jokes from the back row and Jessica’s able piano playing. It feels like Steve and Chrissy giving rides and making people welcome. It looks like Xeroxed sheet music, and it sounds like joy.

This is not a gift I ever expected, but it is one I’m happy to savor. (And, of course, Mariah is still sneaking in there too, sometimes.)

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apple orchard trees wonder woman bracelet red

I had my first bite of a September apple last week, sampling a crisp Macintosh from the white bag on the kitchen counter. It tasted delicious: tart, juicy, the embodiment of fall in New England. And I was stunned by the wave of sadness that followed it.

Since I moved to Boston, apples have been tangled up with September: crisp sunny days, cool nights, black-eyed Susans and dahlias and late daylilies in the flower beds around town. September is the start of the academic year, and in a city like Boston, that shifts the rhythm in a big way. And every fall, September has meant apple picking.

apple trees blue sky

Apple picking was and is a beloved tradition for my former church. I’d eaten apples all my life, but there are no apple orchards in West Texas, and I wasn’t prepared for the sight of their rambling, gnarled branches heavy with fruit. I fell instantly in love.

Last year, some dear friends who’d moved away came back to visit for a long weekend, and we made sure to plan our apple-picking excursion when they were here. We wandered the orchard and filled our bags to bursting and ate the traditional orchard lunch of hot dogs and apple cider donuts. There were photos and laughter and tired kiddos, and cold, fresh cider. It felt right.

This year, so much has shifted: I’m living across the water in Eastie, spending my Sunday mornings sleeping in or running instead of going to church. I’m navigating the end of the marriage whose story began when I was in college. I am not who I was, and my life is a testament to that fact. But it is still September, and the apples have appeared at the farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

I’ll keep eating them, because the flavor and enjoyment are worth the reminder of all I have lost. Things are different now, but life is still full of sweetness. I’m trying to feel it all, live it all, truly taste both the grief and the joy.

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jer ryder legos Christmas tree

The middle of our Christmas journey is always just that: the middle.

By which I mean: it is messy and rich and full, crowded with some of my favorite holiday traditions and the constantly-in-motion bodies of my two nephews. We are already a little tired, having flown 1,700 miles and driven nearly another 400.

blue sky highway Texas

This year, the drive happened on Christmas Eve – blue sky, long straight highways, Sara Bareilles and Mumford on Spotify, boy-band holiday music when we started to go a little crazy. It ended with my dad greeting us at the door: “We have to leave for church in 45 minutes!”

There was a mad scramble to wrap the last few gifts, kneeling on the guest room floor surrounded by Scotch tape and scraps of wrapping paper. I barely had time to brush my hair before we piled into the car. J and I snapped a photo in front of the lobby Christmas tree before heading inside, hoping we could get a seat – the 4:00 service tends to be crowded.

k j Christmas tree church fbc

Somehow, in spite of the lead-up, I was able to relax then: to exhale into one of my favorite church services of the year. You can count on a few things at my parents’ church: glittering, glorious Christmas trees; Doris on the pipe organ; familiar faces from my childhood and teenage years; and all the verses of as many carols as possible.

candles Christmas Eve silent night fbc

This was Christmas: relishing the third verse of Joy to the World and holding hands with my mother as we lifted our candles during Silent Night. This was Christmas: listening to a string quartet, my husband’s tenor voice, the babbles and cries of so many babies.

This was Christmas: coming, perhaps, no closer to understanding how or why God came into our midst, but choosing to acknowledge and celebrate. We cannot explain, but we rejoice.

moms tree gifts

We headed back to my parents’ for a pre-gift-exchange smorgasbord: cheese and charcuterie, apple slices and carrot sticks, square pretzels topped with chocolate and mint M&Ms. My nephews, decked out in their Santa shirts, could hardly wait to get to the unwrapping, but first we snacked, and then we listened to my sister read the story that still moves me, every year. “For unto you is born this day.” Unto us a child is born, and nothing will ever be the same.

nephews unwrapping presents gifts Christmas

This was the year of the Legos: the boys are obsessed, and they received sets from multiple family members. (Their other favorite thing was a pair of tiny laser guns – a gift for my dad, who still loves to get toys at Christmas.) We had presents that night and stockings the next day, and there were chocolates and new socks, scarves and Starbucks cards and fancy tea (for me).

The weather – after a freak dust-and-rainstorm, complete with tumbleweeds – continued mild, and we spent two afternoons in my sister’s backyard playing football and baseball and climbing on the swing set. We grilled burgers and ribs and did full justice to all the traditional holiday sides (most of them potato-based). I went for a few solo runs in my parents’ neighborhood, looping through the familiar roads under (mostly) bare branches and blue sky.

sneakers rocks running west Texas

The hubs, fighting sinus trouble, won the Best Uncle Award for playing every kind of sport (and Lego) we could squeeze in. My brother-in-law showed off his model train, and more quietly, his grilling skills. I slipped out onto my sister’s front lawn to snap pictures of the sunsets. And the best, as always, was being together.

If you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely. Now: onward into 2019.

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cotton mural texas

The shape of our Christmas journey has changed a little over the past few years.

When we moved to Boston, J’s parents and sister were still living in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, where he grew up. My father-in-law talked for years about retiring to “the country,” but I secretly never believed they’d actually do it. Until one summer day in 2015 when they shocked us all by announcing they were moving to a tiny East Texas town we’d never heard of.

Now, instead of staying in the suburbs, we fly into DFW, pick up the rental car and drive east for about an hour, to a cluster of small towns set off the highways amid cotton fields, (mostly) defunct railroad tracks and a few smallish lakes.

lake ray Hubbard Texas

It’s still a relatively quick drive into Dallas, and we end up going in at least once while we’re there, to meet up with J’s high school choir friends and sing Christmas carols. My husband, the lifelong choir nerd, is not a fan of most pop Christmas music, but he loves – and so do I – the chance to sing a cappella arrangements of the classics.

girls caroling

It always takes us a few songs to warm up, and there’s always at least one carol we don’t quite hit (this year it was O Tannenbaum). But we find our way through the familiar sheet music, singing Hark the Herald and Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Come All Ye Faithful (with at least the first verse in Latin). We always do multiple renditions of Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Jingle Bells, and this year, Kelly had a surprise for us: actual sheet music for the absurdly complex version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We wind up with a few non-Christmas classics: the alma mater (even I know all the words) and The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

The weather was mild this year: blue skies, brisk but not biting winds, and temps in the vicinity of 60 (!) degrees. J took advantage of the hotel’s fitness center, but I made several drives to the park we discovered last year, where, it turns out, I love to run.

park pond blue sky

At the front end of a 10-day trip filled with people, those long solo loops around the pond and the neighborhood saved my life, and helped settle me after a rough travel day.

We kept a few of the traditions we’ve established over the years: the caroling party, a trip to the local pie place to meet J’s aunt and cousins for lunch (and pie); the family gift exchange, where my niece, Annie, got more presents than all of us (also a tradition). And we tried a few new things: Korean barbecue with my sister-in-law, some Tempranillo at the local winery, my in-laws’ new church.

I struggle sometimes to savor our days in East Texas, because I’m already looking forward to what always comes after them: Christmas in my hometown with all the traditions I love, and a few crowded, love-filled days with friends in Abilene.

But this year, for whatever reason, I was (mostly) able to slow down and enjoy this first leg. I wanted to really notice the blue sky and the cotton fields and the sun-bleached buildings. I wanted to remember: there is real life out here, in this place. I wanted to pay attention.

We’re (slowly) finding our way into the new year over here. I hope you are too.

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birch bark reindeer

On Monday morning, I dropped off a thick stack of Christmas cards at the post office.

The hubs and I sat at the kitchen table the night before, listening to Christmas music, surrounded by sticky labels and the ever-changing list I print off and then mark up every year. We both reached for our phones several times to text friends for new addresses. As I said to Jaclyn, the act of virtually asking for a physical address seems to capture December in the modern world. (That might go double for Jaclyn herself: we met online, have exchanged many snail-mail letters and even met in person a few times, and are mostly keeping up via text and blogs these days.)

I only write down many of these addresses once or twice a year: my aunt and grandparents near San Antonio, my housemates from grad school in England. A cluster of houses in southwest Missouri, where my dad grew up and his family (by blood and by choice) still lives.

Some of these folks I don’t talk to all that often, and haven’t seen for years. But their addresses, and the physical act of writing them by hand, are in there. And sending Christmas cards – choosing a photo, scrambling to update the list, finding an hour to scribble notes on the back of each card to our loved ones – is one of the small but important rituals of the season.

Christmas tree snoopy

Last week, on a rare weeknight at home together, we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol over bowls of spicy carrot-ginger soup, delighting in the songs and silliness and cracking up at the asides by Rizzo and Gonzo. This weekend, we ordered takeout from our favorite Indian place and watched White Christmas. I giggled at Danny Kaye’s facial expressions, marveled at Vera-Ellen’s footwork, and welled up when the General walked down the stairs in his uniform. (Every year.)

So much (I keep saying) has changed in the last few years: my job(s), our address(es), the way we navigate so much of our daily lives. This year, Advent has felt hard and different; I’ve missed some of my usual traditions, like the church Christmas pageant and the a cappella notes of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

But some of the season’s tiny rituals remain the same. J has hung the felt mistletoe ball in the doorway between the dining and living room. The words in my Advent book are still there, sustaining and comforting and sometimes shaking me awake, as I page through them before bed. The cyclamen and poinsettias at my florist are vivid and glorious. The shop windows all over town are sparkly and festive. I’m fighting (hopefully defeating) my annual December cold, and laughing at my sister’s photos of her Elf on the Shelf, Oliver, and his antics.

poinsettias brattle square florist red flowers Cambridge

We are making travel plans, packing, doing laundry, finishing up the Christmas shopping. I am humming the familiar carols, and singing them with others, when I can. (We spent Sunday morning at a lessons and carols service that fed my soul and made my heart sing.) We bought (more) wrapping paper and Scotch tape this weekend, and the tiny coat-hanger tree I’ve had for twenty years is sparkling away on top of the microwave.

Some of our neighbors have set electric candles in their windows, and the sight warms me when I glance outside after dark. Before I go to bed, I pause in the kitchen to glance out the window at the quiet street, then in the living room to take in the glow of the Christmas tree before unplugging it for the night. So much of each day feels hurried and hectic, but just for a moment each night, there is peace.

Advent is about the waiting, the longing, the gaps between what ought to be and what has not yet come. We are waiting, we are hurting, we are tiptoeing toward Christmas. And while we wait, I am savoring every bit of joy.

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harvard widener library commencement banners

We celebrated Commencement at Harvard last week: my sixth one, the university’s 367th. It was – it always is – a kaleidoscope of moments and light, words and memories.

It was crimson hoods and black robes flapping, piles and piles of special editions of the Harvard Gazette, where I worked briefly during Commencement season, two years ago. It was spring breezes and blue skies, exuberant music by the Harvard band and choir, thousands of folding chairs and dozens of speeches.

I spent most of the morning in the Yard, the epicenter of the festivities, and it was overstimulating and glorious. I stood near the stage with my colleagues Deb and Christina, press passes around our necks. We listened and applauded, soaking it all in.

harvard yard banners trees commencement

Commencement, this year, smelled like lilacs, especially the waist-high versions that bloomed out just in time for the day. It sounded like marching feet and raucous cheers, vuvuzelas and ringing church bells, applause from so many proud parents and friends. It tasted like chai (of course) from Darwin’s, sipped standing in the Yard as we listened to the student orators, and like veggie wraps and guacamole, eaten sitting by a sixth-floor office window while we rested our tired feet.

This year, the road to Commencement has felt long and difficult. It has been a tough time to be doing communications work at a school of government, even (or especially) at Harvard. We have weathered serious internal changes in our staff and leadership, and decision-making processes have shifted, sometimes faster than I could keep up with.

Our work here is informed by the political climate in the nation and the world, and it’s been a wild ride lately in both places. The work of keeping on, of fulfilling our daily tasks and responsibilities, has felt sometimes futile and often overwhelming. I’ve wondered many times whether and how it can possibly matter.

And yet.

I spent a glorious hour sitting in the HKS café last month, listening to a Somali-Canadian student speak about her hopes for nation-building and the good questions she plans to take back to Mogadishu. On Commencement day, I listened to Pete Davis, the graduate student speaker, urge us to commit to showing up and slaying the dragons of boredom and distraction, to do the slow work of building a better world. I listened, that afternoon, to Drew Gilpin Faust speak about hope in her final Commencement address as Harvard’s president, nudging her audience toward wisdom and goodness. I remembered, for a moment, what this place can be.

I’ll be searching out my own new beginning (again) this summer. My current job is ending, so I’ll be looking for a new position where I can write and edit and tell good stories. I don’t know yet where that will be, though I hope it’s at Harvard.

Because after five years, this place is home. It is a challenge and a community, an inspiration and sometimes a source of exasperation. It is both a big, complicated, many-headed beast and a small New England town. It has tremendous potential to do some good in the world, and it is full of bright, thoughtful, curious people who help make that happen.

As our graduates begin their next chapters (mostly) outside of Cambridge, I hope I get the chance to write another one here.

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