Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Appropriateness – or not – of Christmas Gifts

In one Christmas carol, the shepherd boy says to the king, “Do you know what I know? A child, a child, shivers in the cold.”
            “Let us bring him silver and gold,” says the king. Silver and gold, frankincense and myrrh for a baby born in a sheep’s stall?! What were the Wise Men thinking? They should have brought blankets, tea, and hot-cross buns.
            Thus began our long tradition of giving gifts for Christmas, which, all too often, reflect this origin with their inappropriateness. How many times have we given incense and baubles to friends who needed blankets and buns? But trying to figure out whether that friend would rather have gifts for a king even if he is shivering in the cold is half the fun of the whole tradition.  The other half is receiving gifts that by being so perfect tell us how well the giver knows us – a kitchen knife from my sister, some merino wool for a new knitting project from my son, a book of word puzzles from Mike. 
To help with appropriateness, some members of my family like to give out Christmas wish lists, which insure that the giver will have the satisfaction of pleasing the recipient and that the recipient will be relieved of the burden of unwanted gifts. Nonetheless, I’m not always fond of this method. It diminishes the element of surprise and deprives the giver of half the fun. Besides, if I put needle-nose pliers on my list, what’s to keep me from getting needle-nose pliers from every person who sees the list?
A few years ago I was invited to a Christmas party with close friends who all agreed not to buy gifts but to find things in our own homes to give each other. At first this sounded like a garage sale exchange plan, but I found I don’t want to give my friends what I don’t want, either. There is no spirit in such a gift. I won’t give away the bowl my father made or my great-grandmother’s tea set, either, because the feeling-bond associated with those items is strong for me and negligible for anyone else. But a pretty necklace an ex-boy friend gave me is just right for Myria (I don’t want to be reminded of the ex-boy friend, anyway), my library can be thinned of books if I really try, and I’ll let go of my stash of yarns to give to Louann, who is a weaver.
Maybe Mary accepted the gifts of the Wise Men thinking, “What on earth am I going to do with frankincense?” and if she didn’t quite manage, “Just what I always wanted!” she surely smiled and said thank you, responding not so much to the gift as to the feeling-bond the gift represented. And it is that feeling-bond, in the end, that is at the heart of the gift-giving tradition, for it is that that we mean when we give our gifts.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas in Ruins; Christmas Reclaimed

            I was knitting a Christmas gift one evening last week, sitting on the couch with the Christmas tree twinkling in its lights at my elbow, when suddenly, with a clatter and a tinkling, the tree came crashing down, spilling water from its stand, breaking class balls, flinging tinsel, and scattering Santa Clauses, reindeer, angels, and snowflakes all over the floor.
          Christmas in ruins.
          Aghast, I jumped up. Stepping carefully over broken glass and delicate ornaments, I pushed the tree upright again, holding it vertical. Then all I could do was stand there, foolishly, wondering what to do, and then even more foolishly, since no one was around, I called out, "Can you help me? Could you bring me some string?" No one answered, of course, so I gently laid the Christmas tree back on the floor, hoping not to lose more ornaments or tangle more tinsel, and went to get string. Then I pushed the tree upright again. It's a good thing the place for the tree is in front of the stairs. I tied it to the railing, then stepped back to assess the situation.
        One Christmas years ago, in the old house, after spending hours putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, I sat next to it to play my guitar. When I had finished playing, I put the guitar back in its case, closed the lid, and walked away, pulling the Christmas tree down as I went. I had caught a limb of the tree in the guitar case.
        That tree had been precariously planted in a bucket of dirt. This one had been put in a Christmas tree stand, which should have made it a lot sturdier, but this tree, as that one, was ultimately balanced with a very large rock. It wasn't that a mischievous Santa's elf had kicked the rock off the stand, but that the mischievous gravity elf, working day and night ("I think I can; I think I can"), had finally succeed in finding the tipping point, and over the tree went.
       I could hear the elf chortling with laughter somewhere up the stairs.
       The force of the fall had pulled the tree out of the prongs that tightened against the trunk. Though now upright again, it was twisted out of its original position. I couldn't get it back into the prongs and twisted right again while it was tied to the railing, nor could I both hold it up and work on its base at the same time. "Can someone help me?"
         No answer.
         I called Mike, who said he would be there the next day. When he arrived, I told him I had been in such a hurry to get the tree upright, as though the longer it lay on the floor the more ornaments would be ruined, I hadn't thought to take a picture. Now I wanted to recreate the scene of the crime for a photograph. We untied the tree from the railing and laid it on the floor again. I scattered the tossed-off ornaments around it and took the broken pieces of glass from the dust bin and laid them strategically among the ornaments. 
After I took pictures, we re-raised the tree, which I held in place while Mike re-secured it in its stand. Then we tied it to the railing, untangled tinsel from branches, carefully removed ornaments that had fallen askew, and redecorated the tree.
            It looks fine now, and is securely in place. Gifts are placed safely under it, and I knit again under the tinsel-twinkling Christmas tree, without fear of disaster from either Santa elf or gravity elf.

            Christmas reclaimed.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Christmas in Denmark

        When I was 22 years old and in school at Cambridge University, in England, my Danish friend, Maren, invited me to spend that Christmas, my first away from home, with her family in Bagsvaerd, Copenhagen.
           I loved Maren's family at once: her mother, Ursula; her father, Niels; her sister, Stine, who was there with her baby, Ulreg, whose father (shockingly to me at that time, given my Southern upbringing) was African and who was also there from time to time. Because they were a family as merry as my own, I immediately felt at home with them. I was enchanted by their tiny house, a narrow, semidetached, three-story house filled with original paintings by artist friends of Ursula's mother. These artists had often used Ursula and her siblings as models when they were growing up. One of the paintings, of Ursula as a child in a blue dress with a handful of flowers she had just picked, later hung in Maren's house in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Ursula in the living room, many years later
           In that fairy-tale house I slept in a bed tight under the eaves in the room of Maren's brother, Benjamin, who was spending the year on a schooner. (In later years, I got to know him, and his family, too.) Maren took me to visit her grandmother in a beautiful old house along the harbor, where she had a collection of exquisite doll houses, some with replicas of the paintings in Ursula's house, reproduced in miniature by those same artists.
            Maren was busy studying for exams, so she sent me on a train excursion to Hamlet's Castle in Helsinge with her boyfriend, Troels. She gave me a map of walks thorough the King's deer park in Bagsvaerd, where I wandered under Danish beech trees and around the hunting castle on the hill. She put me on the train to Copenhagen for a day in that ancient city spangled for Christmas.
          Ursula's kitchen was so small everything was within reach from one place, fittingly, as Ursula, too, was small. At meal times Maren and I carried steaming platters of food up a flight of stairs to the dining room (and I thought about Ursula cooking in that downstairs kitchen and sending platters of food up the stairs every day, year after year, throughout Maren's childhood). Classical music played on the record player. When Niels put on Bartok, the rest of the family groaned in mock complaint. That I liked Bartok delighted Niels, and he and I became comrades in exile whenever he played Composition for Two Pianos and Percussion or one of the string quartets.
            The Christmas celebration was exuberantly and warmly rich with family and national traditions. The Christmas tree, crowded into the living room and decorated with exquisite ornaments, twinkled with scores of candles on the tips of branches. On Christmas morning we joined hands and danced around the tree. There was music on the piano and a great Christmas feast with the traditional ris alamande for dessert.
           Among the many presents under the Christmas tree that year was a package from my family in Georgia that included a box of pecans, exotic fare to my Danish friends. It's symptomatic of how much I had come to feel at home in my life abroad that when my friends asked what kind of nuts they were, I couldn't remember what they were called. It's symptomatic, too, of how much more isolated countries were in the sixties. Now, pecans can certainly be found in Denmark.
           From the time of that Christmas, gilded with family warmth and Old World charm, I was Niels's and Ursula's "American daughter." I wrote to them occasionally, always at Christmas. When I revisited Denmark with Maren in 1996, we went to see Niels and Ursula.
Maren, Ursula, Niels
They were old, now, and old age had not been kind. Niels was almost crippled with a bad hip, Ursula nearly blind, but they were as gracious and cheerful as ever. Niels walked with Maren and me through the backyard garden. Ursula served us wine and Danish cookies in the living room with its beautiful paintings. When Maren and Ursula carried dishes into the kitchen and I was alone with Niels, I gently brushed crumbs off his chest, hoping not to offend him but wanting to help him reassert his dignity. I have a picture of me that Niels took that afternoon. He was an old man. His hands weren't steady, and his eyesight wasn't good, but the picture is beautiful. In it I'm wearing a flowered skirt and am sitting in the garden among Ursula's flowers, looking at Niels impishly and fondly.
Maren took a picture of Niels taking a picture of me in Ursula's garden.

The picture Niels took of me
           One night not too many years after that visit, I had a dream about Niels, a vivid, powerful dream, pulsatingly psychic. I woke up profoundly moved and felt I should write Niels immediately. Two days later I got an email from Maren telling me her father had had a stroke and probably wouldn't live long. When he recovered enough to live (as it turned out, for a couple of months more, though in a state of constant sleep), I sent him a letter, which Stine read to him. I told him about my dream and spoke of our Christmas together, of Bartok and the beautiful tree with its candles and ris alamande, evoking one last time the magical Christmas when he had welcomed to his family a shy young American girl who had fallen in love with them all.