Clippings: Look homeward for the holiday spirit

I try to start my Christmas shopping each year at the Peasant Market, which is the big flea market in July at St. Stephen’s on the green in Middlebury. There is always a lot of great stuff there — more stuff than I can reasonably justify buying at one time for the modest needs of me and my family. So a couple years ago I struck on the idea that I could pick up a few extra things beyond what would satisfy our immediate needs and desires and squirrel them away as Christmas gifts, or at least stocking stuffers.

This has actually taken some of the anxiety out Christmas — specifically the shopping anxiety. If I buy a few things in July, and then in September I see something on sale and purchase it and hide it from the girls and from myself, then when the Christmas decorations go up in stores in November I’m not immediately plunged into a funk knowing that I need to spend, spend, spend. Feeling perhaps a tad superior, I quietly remind myself that I’m way ahead of the game, I planned in advance, I’ve already got a lot of my Christmas shopping done.

The habit has gotten so ingrained that in 2010 I happened upon a going-out-of-business sale in May and managed to buy some art supplies that I stashed in the Christmas drawer of the bench in my workroom. Seven months later they came out ready for wrapping paper and a spot under the tree.

However, 2012 has not been a banner year for following through on my time-tested game plan. Before heading off to the Peasant Market I was reminded that we didn’t have a lot of disposable cash and I shouldn’t spend beyond a certain amount. Then I bought a beautiful Japanese tea service for my older daughter’s birthday, which was only a week later. She loved the little ceramic pots and cups, but not allowing the gift to season in the workroom seemed to put a jinx on my other purchases. After a month the well-loved old wool blanket I had purchased began to instead look a little ratty. The red candles in the Christmas drawer were distinctly underwhelming. And there was a bit of a lonely echo when I pulled open the drawer after Thanksgiving. I was further behind in my Christmas shopping than I’d been in years.

The rational half of my brain told me there was still plenty of time to carefully weigh my purchases and finish up weeks before our long-planned trip to Iowa to see my folks for the holiday. But the reptilian half of my brain began to panic, and I’m a guy, which means the reptilian half is bigger.

So I bumbled through early December, out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t decide on any gifts. There wasn’t enough money to simply spend, spend, spend; and there wasn’t enough time to make anything that would show my loved ones the depth of my regard for them. I felt I must be missing out on the true joy of Christmas.

This past Saturday my wife, the two girls and I cut a tree for our living room. We’d be away on Christmas proper, but Sarah’s sister would be visiting with her kids, staying at our house, and we thought they would want a tree with lights and ornaments and everything to give it the true Christmas feel. On Sunday we rose at a respectable time, breakfasted and began to think seriously about dressing our balsam beauty.

The girls, ages 9 and 11, are in high spirits. While bickering might be the order of the morning on a school day, this morning, while I sit in the kitchen savoring a second or third cup of coffee, giggles come lilting in from the living room. The younger girl puts on her old lady voice to harangue her sister to perfect comic effect. The older girl is taking it all with good humor. There are more laughs and then shrieks followed by a call for help from the older sister.

“She’s trying to eat my face!” she screams between gulps of laughter.

Thunk! They fall to the ground, convulsing in a pile on the rug.

After a brief interlude in the kitchen, the younger girl tries to leave the kitchen and the older jumps in front, arms spread blocking the doorway.

“Guards! Password, please,” the older girl commands.

“Can I have a hint?” her sister asks with mock meekness.

“You’re standing in it.”

Feet? No.

Kitchen? No.

Skin? No.

“Can I have another hint?”

“Your parents gave it to you at birth and you use it every day.”

The whole family gets involved in trying to figure out this riddle. Eventually, the tween said it was “you …  your name … you know.” The lack of precision was more than made up for by the excess of enthusiasm.

And soon the foursome moves to the living room with boxes and boxes of ornaments and garland and strings of lights. “Look at the ornament I made in kindergarten,” one sister shouts. The other girl shows off the one she made in kindergarten. The snow is falling. Christmas music is pouring out of the CD player.

Mama gets seriously involved in finishing up the Christmas cookies that she and the girls had made the batter for on the previous day. Soon there is a beautiful display of lime cookies lined up like tin soldiers on the parchment paper ready to pop into the oven. The girls go at their dough with shaped cutters. Before long sugar cookies range about on the baking sheets like a carnival menagerie — bears, elephants, giraffes, kangaroos and stars.

I realize that I have finally caught the Christmas spirit. And I’m reminded that it is not something you can keep in a dark drawer in the basement. It is an infection you contract when you’re bathed in love and contentment.

Ah, cookies in the end, because nothing is better than cookies, family and peace of mind.

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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