In which we celebrate


Overlapping festive traditions: new (left) and old (right) baubles

Christmas, I argue, is a space-time continuum where the past and present layer up like sediments on the Jurassic coast. At the appointed time, old traditions are unearthed out of storage to mingle with those spontaneously invented as you go along. The result is slightly different every year, yet grounded with a hefty sense of nostalgic familiarity, the past shoring up the present as if they have always been together.

This time was especially intense because we received my late parents’ possessions over the summer in an overseas container shipment, most of which have yet to be explored. (It is so emotionally difficult to process, I can only do a box at a time.) But when we were putting up our tree last week, I was ready to tackle the one marked “Christmas” that Richard found among the stack in the loft. Feeling that tingly sensation like the moment before the big reveal of a scientific experiment, I slit through the tape and began to delve through the dusty contents within, stirring up the scent of a Victorian farmhouse halfway across the planet.

I found what I was looking for: several cardboard boxes containing the ancient glass family ornaments in faded tissue paper, each nested into a cardboard cell. Some were instantly recognizable, and others, utterly unknown. In the familiar category were all the baubles that I’d forgotten until the moment I saw them, the seeing somehow reconnecting the memory as decisively as a light switch. Some were broken, others intact but with colors faded almost to greyscale, while a few looked nearly brand-new, like the brace of red and green peacocks with their real tail feathers that I used to adore, and which must be close to a century old. The unfamiliar ones included a pretty, gilt-trimmed scarlet sphere in its own special box, with a gaping hole on one side and a little note in the hand of my mother (also a relentless chronicler) stating simply: “Poland, 2002”. (Darling Richard managed to fill the perilously fragile shell with expandable foam, and it now hangs with all the others on the tree, foam-side back.) Did my parents manage to travel to Poland on the same trip when they visited me in Amsterdam? I have no memory of this, but it may be so. So many mysteries, which now will remain forever unanswered.

I wasn’t expecting to find the metal Christmas tree candle-holders, complete with half-burned silver candles still in situ. Dad used to take hours attaching the holders in unproblematic areas of the live tree, then changing his mind and moving them repeatedly, before making us all sit down and not move for half an hour after he lit them, lest we accidentally burn down the house. Just seeing them gave me a shiver of fear, but also an injection of the old Christmas wonder, from back when I was as small as my son, and everything seemed not just metaphorically magical, but actually magical.

My maternal family’s cookie recipe, converted from American to British

Back in the present, the longest night of the year has come and gone and the moon is swelling towards full. We have been baking non-stop – the usual Julpepparkakor cookies, and my recent adaption of Martha Stewart’s sugar cookies, both cut into shapes using the metal cutters that I happily discovered in the overseas Box of Christmas. I like the idea that when Joshua is pressing them into the dough to make stars and hearts and trees, he is handling the same tools that his grandmother used to use, and his mother, when I was his age. Richard has been knocking out stollen, mince pies and sausage rolls with his usual aplomb, all handmade from scratch including the candied peel, mincemeat and marzipan. He’s got a Christmas cake and pudding in the wings, and a magnificent feast for tomorrow night. I am not sure what sort of cosmic lottery I won, but I’m just going to try to enjoy it without pinching myself every two seconds, or convincing myself that I don’t deserve it.

musical notation

How did this abomination slip past the editors?

Joshua and I have been practicing festive duets daily for the past month, which we finally got to showcase last night at our annual cocktail party, with everyone gathered around the piano singing. It’s hard to find decent arrangements of the old favourites, and I usually have to annotate them to set them to rights. But it is wonderful that Joshua is turning into a proficient player, and that I have someone to play with. It’s been nearly half a century since I use to enjoy duets with my father’s best friend Chester, a concert pianist who would indulge my childish enthusiasm, and whose Secondo would include thrilling improvisational flourishes and trills that turned our songs into gold. But now I’m the Secondo, spicing up the bass parts, and Joshua is playing a serviceable melody snuggled next to me.

It’s Christmas Eve, and everything is ready. The lights are up, the mistletoe is hung, I’ve made a wreathe of fir offcuts, holly, ivy flowers and pyrocanthus berries. The larders are full, the older offspring are home and sleeping for 15 hours. The presents are wrapped, and the weather is typical mild English green-and-grey gloom. I am humbled by my excessive good fortune, and strive only not to take it for granted.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Music, Nostalgia. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In which we celebrate

  1. Henry says:

    Happy Christmas, One and All.

  2. Dear Henry, I hope you and yours have a lovely break and a bright and shiny new year. xxx

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