Vintage Christmas

posted Wednesday December 25th, 2013


In an effort to stick to some sort of budget and keep things lively, I dubbed this year “Thrift Store Christmas.” All that meant, in the end, was that I spent a lot of time in Goodwill buying Pyrex and crystal bowls I used as cactus planters, trimmed with vintage plastic Christmas deer and Santas I found at weekend flea markets. I liked the results so much I kept most of them for myself, scurrying around to buy full-priced gifts and make egg nog, cookies, and spiced nuts to give away.

I was crazed and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s almost midnight on Christmas Eve and I’m pretty sure I haven’t sat down all day. Finally, the stockings are stuffed, the presents are stacked, I’ve eaten Santa’s cookies and taken the Advil Sophie insisted on leaving out for him, and put her back in her room several times with the bitchy admonition that Santa won’t come unless she’s asleep.

I’ve got one last must-see movie on the list — Family Stone — and it’s on as I type this. I’ll fall asleep on the couch before it’s over, crawl to bed and wake up far too early for another day packed with expectations.

I’ll be the first to tell you how much I love Christmas — and I do, with a fierceness that comes from getting something you’ve always wanted. But I’ve come to realize that this Christmas craze, this impossibly long laundry list of must dos, sees, eats and buys, is a Band Aid for the melancholy that sticks around year-long, but mostly this time of year.

I’m not depressed with a capital D — not anymore, a couple years of Prozac in the Nineties and kids a decade later knocked it out of me (though I always wait for it to come back) — but anxious, neurotic, prone to the blues? Yes. You too? Yeah, I figured.

Christmas is no anti-depressant, it’s crack. I’m already anticipating the withdrawal, even as I gaze in anticipation at the obscene piles of gifts under the tree and watch the plastic deer pose campily among the succulents on my kitchen windowsill.

I’m particularly addicted to the quest for tradition, those quintessential moments we bottle and hold onto all year, then attempt to repeat til they are part of our holiday landscape. LIke the hundreds of star-shaped sugar cookies I ice with pink frosting the Sunday before Christmas, for the cocktail party Ray and I have been throwing since before we were married. Or the sausage stuffing we make Christmas Day in honor of his mom, who passed away several years ago.

We are looking for our vintage moments. You can’t buy them at a thrift store, or online. I know, I’ve tried.

I’m lucky. This year I’ve had more than my share of beautiful, bottle-able moments already: Watching my kids perform in Snow Queen; listening to bell ringers play “Silent Night” at the Desert Botanical Garden with my mom; meeting my friend Robrt Pela’s mom and getting to tell her what a good mother she must be; taking Annabelle shopping so she could buy her school friends presents; dancing to Christmas music with Sophie; seeing the look of bliss on the face of the biggest boy in Sophie’s class when we finished his snow globe; plotting Christmas with Ray.

And still, I’m a little depressed. Spoiled? Yeah. But it’s more than that. Another wonderful holiday moment: hearing Judy Nichols read a beautiful piece called “Gifts” at an event last week.

Judy writes of her childhood, of a truly vintage Christmas, one brimming with simplicity, sincerity, joy. At the end she presented each audience member with a plain paper bag; you’ll figure out what was in it when you read her piece, which you should do while I finish watching Family Stone and try to focus on what’s important. (Which is not whether or not the Cornish game hens come out right tomorrow.)

Fly your freak flag. Find your traditions. Merry Christmas.

Gifts by Judith Nichols

On Christmas Eve, the faithful in Hanover, Kansas, gather in their churches, the light shining out through the stained glass windows into the icy night.

At my grandparents’ house, we put on our Sunday best, dresses and Mary Janes, and run through the dark to the car parked by the corn field, breaking through the crust of the new snow, crystals slipping into our shoes and melting.

We squeeze in, my grandmother, mother and father in back, holding my big sister. I sit in the front between my uncle and grandfather.

The headlights shine down the road, illuminating the grain silo by the railroad tracks. We turn at Ricky’s Café, where, this time of year, farmers linger longer over their coffee, waiting for the ground to thaw again.

North Street is decorated with candy canes on the light poles and twinkling garlands that stretch from one side of the road to the other. The frost on the sidewalk sparkles.

We climb past the school where my grandfather is the principal and my grandmother works in the lunchroom, and turn on Church Street, headed toward Zion Lutheran. The bell rings in the steeple.

My grandfather carries me from the cold car up the steps toward the wooden door, hugging friends along the way. I sit on his lap in one of the pews near the front as we watch children act out the nativity.

Near the end of the service, volunteers pass out small white candles, with cardboard circles around the bottom. The lights go out, and someone lights the candle of the person standing by the center aisle. One by one, in each row, the flame is passed from person to person, candle to candle, until the entire room glows.

 My grandfather helps me hold my candle straight, so the hot wax drips on the cardboard circle, not on my hand.

Gently, the organ begins, and everyone sings: “Silent night, Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.” I can pick out my grandmother’s voice. Grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, babies, sisters and brothers all sway in time. The last note fades, and there is a hush.

As the pews empty, each child is handed a small paper bag folded over at the top and stapled. I hold it carefully in my lap on the way back. When we get home, my sister and I pour the treasured gifts onto the dining room table: an orange, nuts to shell, and a handful of Christmas candies.

Later, lying on the cot in my grandparent’s bedroom, watching the moon through the window and waiting for the chill to leave the sheets, I sing my favorite carols: “O tidings of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy. O tidings of comfort and joy.”



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5 Responses to “Vintage Christmas”

  1. Merry Christmas, Amy! Hope your day is delightful. You mentioned your “must -see movies” — I would love for you to list them. I am in need of some recommendations. I’ll start with the one you mentioned, The Family Stone. Peace to you & your family!

  2. Hey Christa — Hope your holiday was fantastic! I have to admit that I don’t have a very interesting list: Love Actually; Charlie Brown Xmas; Frosty the Snowman; Rudolph; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; The Year Without a Santa Claus….. A couple lesser known movies we love: Pee Wee’s Christmas Playhouse (star studded cast!) and Annabelle’s Wish (goofy but sweet and a friend gave it to me when I had Annabelle….) Best to you and yours. xo Amy

  3. You my dear, are vintage. And most definitely one of our family’s traditions. Joy to you this season- xoxoox

  4. As a full-on, unapologetic Grinch/Scrooge (insert appropriate Christmas grump allusion — I think it’s PTSD from too much baby Jesus in my own Lutheran childhood, which was FULL of lovely scenes like the one your friend Judy remembers — funny how we process childhood so differently), I love that YOU love Christmas. I live vicariously through you. You and I have had many a chat (and many a laugh) about the tradition of holiday letters. We received one this year with the following closing: “The world is a mess, find some way to help AND care for yourselves!” Your back-breaking traditions do both. I’m lucky to be a recipient of your Christmas cheer. Thank you friend — I DID miss Snow Queen and Luminaria and dancing with Sophie (chocolate Santa!) this year. Sigh. xo.

  5. This is all so lovely, your writing and Judy’s, that I am printing it out and placing it in my Christmas file. I want to be sure to read it again next year.

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