My family owns way too many goddamn Christmas ornaments and every year my mother buys more. She goes to Hallmark, walks up and down every aisle, peers at the delicate dangling sculptures, and picks one ornament for each of her three children that is supposed to represent our accomplishments for that year. Let’s see—Ben’s breaking his lease, so Santa Claus playing a saxophone? A snowman swimming in a mug of hot chocolate and, improbably, not melting? The SS Enterprise with a wreath on it?
When I was twelve years old, my mother gave me an ornament of two mice in red pajamas and striped hats, sitting by a fire, stringing comically large popcorn onto a comically large needle and thread. She got me this ornament because I had a best friend. But as we children aged the tradition continued. What does a twenty-two-year-old accomplish in a year that can be expressed in ornament form? Hallmark doesn’t make a “You left your purse at the bar and went to a house party but that one hot guy from the bar was at the house party too and he brought you your purse and then you made out with him” ornament.
My father thinks we have too many ornaments too. He confessed to me, “Every year I break some. I tell your mom that they were broken when I unpacked them, but really I take them into the kitchen when no one’s looking and snap the leg off of a reindeer.”
Christmas decorations are expensive, impermanent crap. We spend hours first putting them up and then, later, sadder, putting them away. They are a waste of money and time and a burden on all our closets. And yet every year I decorate my apartment for Christmas. I carry on the tradition.
I am desperate to leave my house and go to CVS and take one of their tiny carts up and down every Christmas aisle and fill that cart with plastic penguins holding candy canes, shredded green plastic wreaths, electric elves, shiny balls, glittery snowmen. I want to purchase lawn decorations, animatronic deer slowly lowering their heads as if to feast on a brown, dying lawn, two penguins bobsledding, an inflatable Holy Family, a six-foot-tall Christmas tree with a Santa Claus climbing it because he’s being chased by a dog who’s removing his pants with his teeth. I want to buy things that will make my world magical. My husband asks that I not run out to CVS just then, at 9pm on a Sunday night, that I wait, show some restraint, not waste hundreds of dollars.
But this sparkly crap makes me feel safe. The indirect light from hundreds of Christmas lights, tiny four-watt bulbs all different colors so when you turn them on the entire room becomes a glowing pink amber? It’s what I imagine the inside of a womb looks like.
We used to celebrate the holidays with nothing but a few candles and a nicely roasted turkey. Now we require even more decorations, more items, more stuff, more tiny lights, more candles scented like a pie that we no longer know how to make. Why does my mother buy more ornaments each year? Why am I compelled to travel to the CVS on a Sunday evening in my worst clothes? Why are these temporary, sparkly objects a balm? What are they soothing? Because we have forgotten that we are not decorating for a biblical holiday, or even a seasonal good time. We are celebrating the solstice. We are marking the moment when we have the least amount of light in our lives.
The world is sliding into a dark sleep so we choose to celebrate. We celebrate a miracle of light, a birth, the love we have in our lives, the phenomenon of people gathering together no matter the driving conditions. We momentarily wrap our lives in colorful paper, put bows on branches, tie strands of lights around trees. And then we step back and see that the lights cling to the bare branches as though they have been present the whole time, hiding underneath the green leaves of summer, waiting for this miracle of death so they can finally be revealed. We act as though losing summer and light and warmth is a gift itself—it allows us to see the empty spaces in our lives, in our living rooms, so we can then fill them with temporary objects that glow and gleam. During this tiny sliver of the year the physical edges of the world are softened, sharp corners rounded off by tinsel and holly, cold spaces filled with twinkly lights and the smells of pine, vanilla and cinnamon.
The world is dying, quickly emptying of light and warmth. As the light ekes away we place items that glitter and twinkle in our living rooms. Cold is coming, so we make warmth.