Greg Dennis: Remembering the granddaddy of holidays
There’s an old saying that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
To which I would add that while you can take the boy out of Christmas — you can turn him into a non-Christian, tree-hugging dirt worshipper — you can’t take the Christmas out of the boy.
I’ve pretty much had it with Christmas the way it’s now practiced — holiday lights that go up before Halloween, Black Friday sales that have made a new national holiday out of over-the-top consumerism, store music systems loaded up with every sappy Xmas song ever written.
But even the motel-littered access roads to Vermont ski resorts have a few weathered old barns on them. And inevitably for those of us who have lived through several decades, some of the sweet old remnants of Christmas remain.
I initially conceived of this column as looking to the new year, because the column will appear in the newspaper after Christmas and just a few days before 2014. And, after all, aren’t we energetic Americans always supposed to be looking forward?
But while you will read this once the yuletide passes, I am writing it from deep in the looming shadow of Christmas approaching. So I’m looking backward, because what is Christmas if it is not steeped in backward-looking traditions?
It’s sometimes said the historical Jesus was likely born in the spring, and that the practice of cutting down a tree to decorate interior space predates the Christian holiday. But before it was an excuse for naked commercialism, Christmas was the Great Subsumer of Other Holy Days — the solstice remade as reemergence of the light in human form.
So we’ve turned Christmas into the granddaddy of holidays, when those of us who are of granddaddy age remember holidays past.
When I was a boy growing up in a small town a bit west of here, we spent Christmas with the family of my parents’ best friends. They’d all met when my dad and my “Uncle” Norman were medical school classmates.
The Avnets happened to be Jewish, but none of us let that stand in the way of a good Christmas. As I’ve noted here before, the tree got labeled as a Hanukkah bush. After my father told us young kids the story of Christmas, Uncle Norman told us the story of Hanukkah.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we would ski out into a farmer’s field to cut the tree and bring it home. The holiday breakfast always featured venison, given to my dad by a patient who couldn’t pay his medical bills any other way.
Many years later, I’m lucky enough to be able to spend Christmas Day at the home of Norman and Roz’s daughter Judy. She is my oldest friend. The day is not complete unless, when I make a toast over dinner to reminisce about those corny old days of yore, I can bring a tear to Norman’s eyes.
Back then we played the Kingston Trio and Frank Sinatra Christmas albums so much that we knew every word, every glockenspiel solo, every skipped word from a scratch on the vinyl. Now those are the only holiday albums I really want to hear, their first chords bringing back a heart-full swell of what it was like to know that Santa was coming, and so was the snow.
One Christmas, though, it didn’t snow.
It happened to be a rare year when we spent the holiday at Killington. This was in the days before snowmaking, and after one pathetic afternoon sliding over slippery grass, we gave up and drove to the Adirondacks to see the Avnets’ new weekend home site. They sold that home last year, a half-century later, closing another chapter of life.
But do those chapters ever really close?
Christmas and New Year’s are for many of us the closest we will ever come to experiencing truly mystical holidays.
And on some level, for those of us who are inclined to the occasional backward glance through life, those childhood Christmases live on. They ring through the decades still.
The snow is always deep, the parties are festive, there is love everywhere. In our memories we see the blazing yule before us. We strike the harp and join the chorus.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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