Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Darkest Day: Why We Have a Tree Inside

Every year I volunteer to teach a holiday class, bring in treats and make a craft with my daughters class. When my daughter was in pre-school and Kindergarten, the teacher planned a holiday party and all the parents came to school. Back then I volunteered to bring in whatever the teacher asked. My daughter was born in Washington, DC and her small class on Capitol Hill was a little model UN: she had friends who had been to Israel and celebrated Hanuka, African friends who shared Kwanza traditions and the rest of us who just had trees. As she got older, other Mothers went back to work and I kept coming to school as a volunteer every holiday. Now my daughter is in her first year of Middle School and her Social Studies teacher invited me to come and teach a class that is a combination of comparative religion, cultural anthropology and here in North Carolina, a little bit of local pride.

My family is Swedish. As a child my parents put traditional candles on our Christmas tree and my father would tease that as the oldest daughter I had to wear the Saint Lucia crown of greenery with candles on Christmas Eve. We had a Scandinavian brass angel chime that is a small windmill powered by candles that move golden angels in a circle to strike bells. As the candles burn hotter the angels spin faster and make a light magical sound as they ring the little bell. Looking at my angel chimes and candles I realize that these could have been made as long as 3000 years ago by simple metal tinsmith and we know that we have always had fire to light our way in the dark.

My lesson  I tell children is that the whole world celebrates the end of the darkest day by exchanging gifts and lighting candles.

For a Myalgia Mommies many mornings can feel like the beginning of another dark day. As I decorate the house with another tree, I'm up to five, I try not to think of the work it will take to put everything away when the season is over. Much like the seasons, I know that each day will pass and the light will come again.

Instead I think about my ancestors thousands of years ago. A mother in a small house, waiting out two months of darkness (I can't imagine spending two months in darkness with my family, I prefer the equator where it is always warm and sunny!) surrounded by children and extended family. Bringing in a fresh scented pine tree was a stroke of pure genius. I ask the children if they ever go to a car wash...whoever is the first to point out that car air fresheners are all tree shaped is rewarded with a piece of chocolate. The kids and I laugh at the idea of the smell of a little cottage filled with family and pets, no running water in the days before people believed in regular bathing or had washing machines. Bringing a fragrant tree into that home was inspired.

Last year my Grandmother-in-law passed away this time of year. When I first became sick she was hostile to the idea. She would ask pointed questions like "what would a woman in Africa do if she had this disease?" Thinking about the holidays and lighting trees in darkness, I think I would have been the Mother in the corner living much like the others, sometimes relying on a little more help from my family. When the tree came in for the dark winter months, I would try to make them all something nice to thank them for their help throughout the year. To show the kids how timeless crafts are I brought in an ornament made from straw, one of wood and a hand knit stocking. So they also understood how time in the house and too much crafting can lead to some silly ideas, the stocking I brought in has a lovely white design. It was made but a relative who collected her dog fur, spun it into the softest yarn, and knit booties for my daughter.

My father loves to tell the story of a friend who had the hair from his dog knitted into a sweater. They were on a ski lift together in a light snow. Wet dog smells bad even in sweater form.  Like seeking light in the dark, some things are universal.

We make ornaments every year to celebrate that we are about to survive another darkest day. That's a lie. I buy ornaments every year. Pretty glass ornaments made by someone else. In theory I should have close to fifty ornaments by now since I have had a tree with my husband for almost fifteen years and we get our daughter one for each of her twelve years. Did I mention the part about the ornaments being glass? Maybe I should start making some tonight, and back date them. Instead, while we sit around the fire at night I am sending cards to loved ones far and wide. Lighting candles and saying prayers as I think of those whose day is much darker than my own.

My husband lived in India as a child. The India festival of light is Diwali and took place in November. They use a different calendar that I have yet to understand. On Facebook I always forward the wonderful photo of India from space on Diwali where the entire country glitters from the light of millions of candles. I'm sure all of the East Coast is lit brightly with candles and lights tonight.

I still haven't thought of a gift to make. My craft bin is full of potential projects but my ideas are not pouring forth. Finding an object to represent appreciation, affection, gratitude and love is a daunting task. As time runs out before the holiday, I still have more cards to send.

Maybe I will make everyone a candle. I know how to do it, but understand that the process is a messy one. I'm also nervous around candles, I won't say who, but a family member did burn down her bedroom leaving a candle unattended. It wasn't me.

In a few weeks the winter solstice will come and go again. As we have a thousand times before, we will witness the dawn on a new day and know that the darkest day is behind us.

Until then, I used up my energy explaining the universal connection of the season to two classes of 6th graders. Then to empower them and bring the story full circle, I asked if they saw the White House Christmas Tree. It is from North Carolina. I sent them off to their next class with a candy cane, understanding of why they have a tree in their house and a back-up career plan. It turns out that tree farming is a lucrative local industry.

Once again, it's time for more tea.

Cheers.
ALJ

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