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A Holly Jolly Christmas Story

December 15, 2013

photoI have always been a very nostalgic person. Therefore, I love the holidays. The holidays are all about nostalgia. It’s the same songs every year, the same movies, the same beverages and foods. I do not get bored; I do it all over and over again every time.

Now, when I say “the holidays,” keep in mind that for me the holidays begin in early October. In some ways Halloween is my favorite because it’s all about the costumes. Sometimes I think I became a theater director so that I could always be doing dress up. Then there’s Thanksgiving, and everything is pumpkin flavored, and there’s cider, and hopefully a little nip in the air. Then there’s my birthday, which usually involves some kind of celebration involving food and friends and drink.

And then it’s Christmas. And it’s peppermint and chocolate and more family time and more food and more friends. And more drink.

When I was a kid we kept the Christmas decorations in the attic, and, curiously, we didn’t keep anything else in the attic. So the only time of year we went up there was to get the Christmas decorations. Even the opening of the attic, the pulling down of the ladder, the gazing up into the darkness–every moment was magical. Then there’s opening the boxes and rediscovering all of your favorites. In the years since, I have literally never let my mother throw away a single ornament. We still have ornaments that are those baked, glazed cookies that you make in pre-school. They’re all chipped so it’s impossible to tell if it’s a bell or a snowman or a reindeer or what. My parents still have them all.

Not surprisingly, over about fifteen years of my adult life, I amassed quite a collection of my own decorations. Some I bought in New York for my tiny little apartments in Hell’s Kitchen and Washington Heights. When I moved with my then-boyfriend soon-to-be-husband to a log cabin deep in the woods of Vermont, I started collecting decorations for all three holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. At Christmas I would decorate the tree, the windows, the kitchen, all four bedrooms, and the bathrooms. There was even a little fake tree in the basement where I worked out. We hosted several Christmases in that cabin– sometimes for my husband’s mother and my parents and his sister, sometimes just for us and my parents. We spent our first Christmas as a married couple there just the two of us. One time his sister, his mother, her sister and her husband, my parents, and my neighbors were all there for Christmas eve. There was snow and icicles and sleigh rides and wood stoves with blazing fires. It was pretty great.

When we moved to LA I brought all of the decorations–several boxes–and to put that in context, I only brought one box of kitchen things. That’s how important the decorations were to me (and how unimportant the kitchen is). Then two years ago, my husband spent Thanksgiving in China on a tour of a play about freedom of the press, which was pretty cool, but I missed him. So when he got back I started planning my birthday–I wanted to have his cast and my cast (I was directing a show that we were co-producing) over for a cocktail party. But five days before my birthday, I came home from rehearsal and he announced that he’d decided that it was unfair to him that he had had to help me out when I was hurt (I had fallen down a flight of stairs and broken my heel, was on crutches for five months, blah blah blah), and he said that I wasn’t making enough money, and he left.

I will spare you the details of that holiday and of the two years that followed. Suffice it to say that a lot has changed. When he moved out of the apartment we shared in Brentwood, I made him take the Christmas decorations. I knew that it would be impossibly sad to open those boxes the following year, but I couldn’t bear to throw them away myself. So I made him take them. They were the last thing he took the day he moved out. So that was that.

Then last Christmas I got a little sad that I didn’t have any decorations, and divorces are expensive, so I didn’t have any money either. As any modern person will do when faced with a problem, I turned to Facebook. I told friends if they had any stuff they weren’t going to use this year that I’d love some hand-me-downs. My new landlord responded, “I think I might have what you’re looking for.” Very mysterious, right? So, I went over to her house and she told me to go up into the attic.

I pulled down the ladder, and headed up, inhaling that familiar attic smell and feeling that familiar draft of cold air hit my face. Then there was that moment where it’s really dark and you have to find the light and balance on the ladder at the same time. But I managed it, and I discovered that the prior owners of that house had left two boxes of Christmas decorations in the attic. There were garlands, a stuffed snowman on a swing, an adorable penguin-box-thingy with a scarf. And of course, lights. And they were perfect.

One of the things I have always loved about Christmas is the fact that early Christians decided when to have Christmas based on the fact that most pagan societies celebrated the Winter Solstice with like a really big party. I can just imagine the church elders going, “So, how can we win people over to our new super-awesome religion?” And one guy’s like, “Well, they have this huge party every year around this time, and maybe we could like figure out a way to throw an even better party at the same time?” And the other guys were like, “Yeah, that oughtta work.”

So yes, for Christians like me, there’s a birth that we celebrate, a gift from God that, even though it probably happened in April, would forever change human history. But it’s not a coincidence that the story of this gift’s arrival is linked to the presence of a really bright light. In the midst of the darkest part of the year, we humans have always celebrated with a big, bright, blazing party full of light. And every year we are reminded, Christian or not, that there is good in the world. That even in our darkest moments, we can find reason to celebrate.

I have a lot to celebrate this year, and I’m super grateful for all of it.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

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