When I was 12 years old, my grandmother taught me how to make gum wrapper chains. It’s easy to do: you fold a candy wrapper into a rectangle with two flaps, fold it across the center, and thread another of the same through it. Do this enough times and you end up with a zigzag-shaped garland. I worked on it all the time, folding new sections from a bag of brightly colored wrappers saved for me by family and friends. By winter it was maybe 10 feet long, and we put it on the Christmas tree. My parents hung it on the tree every year after that, until the paper weakened from age and it separated into several pieces. I still have a section of it, packed away deep in a storage unit.
When I moved away from home to college, we began the tradition of driving to the Catskills on the morning before Christmas every year, to attend my parent’s Christmas Eve party and then visit with Cody’s on Christmas Day.
One year I baked an apple pie for my father — his favorite. I tuned the recipe to emulate a legendary apple pie a woman in our neighborhood used to make when I was a kid. It had an impossibly buttery crust and a cinnamon spiced filling with chunks of apples were just soft — not too crunchy, not mush. I hoped mine would do justice to those memories. The family declared it a success; My dad liked it so much I promised I’d always do it, and I did. Every year it’s been the same — bake pies, wrap presents, drive to the Catskills. Well, until recently.
Another reliable mark of the season was Christmas cards. I always enjoyed getting them in the mail, these little touchpoints of contact from friends and family near and far. Many years ago, I got a linoleum block and cut a winter scene — a rabbit in snowy woods — and set out to hand print our own cards. I worked in the drafty carriage barn, using a rolling pin to press art paper against an inky block until I made fifty cards. I wanted to continue the tradition moving forward, but like so many high effort projects I gave up after that first year. However, I did keep up with sending regular cards — personalized, with a picture of the pets, or some sort of snowy scene. It was a ritual — I’d pick a photo around Thanksgiving and order them in late November, then when they arrived I’d take an afternoon to address them and drop them in a mailbox on the way to work. I’d keep all the cards we received in return on the mantle in our living room — first in our apartment, and then later our house — until New Year’s.
I didn’t send any cards in 2020. A lot of people didn’t — I suppose no one felt like writing Christmas letters or picking a photo from that sad year.
We did do a few small things. My main effort was to make a wreath; we didn’t have any pines at the old farmhouse property, so we wandered a nearby state forest to cut some inconspicuous branches. I tied them to a wreath form, wrapped it with a velvet bow, and put it on our front door. We didn’t do gifts for each other, and only bought a few for close family. We saw people separately, for short visits, a few days before Christmas. Christmas Day we spent alone. I was still reeling from my first miscarriage and we struggled to find something on television that wasn’t a celebration of kids or family. I think we gave up, and went to bed early.
This year I realize how much I missed all of it — even the things I used to gripe about, like waiting in line at a crowded co-op to buy apples or staying up until midnight to bake pies. We do things for holidays that take more effort and time than we’d normally consider reasonable — elaborate meals, decorations that get unpacked and hung for only a few weeks, gifts painstakingly wrapped and ribbon-ed. I’ve come to realize that we do it because we secretly love these things, but we need an excuse to do them. We need a holiday to inspire us to make the effort that special things require.
This year I am doing more. While there aren’t any big gatherings in our future, I’ve revived some of the old traditions. I bought and mailed cards — more than I’ve ever sent before. We got presents for each other. I ordered a gingerbread house kit in the mail. And, for the first time, we got a tree.
We’ve never had a tree before, not even a fake one. We tried once years ago with a little potted one, but our then-spry cats refused to leave it alone and we had to lock it away in a guest bedroom.
This year we walked across the brook and into a meadow with a hacksaw, and worked together to cut a fresh tree from our property. It’s a sizable pine — taller than me, and wide with dense branches. We dragged it back up through the big field and put it in the flatbed. “Do you think the animals will mess with it?” I said. “Maybe,” Cody said. “But let’s try anyway.”
So the tree sits in the living room now. Miraculously, the animals leave it alone. Our ornaments are still all in storage, but I did buy lights. I went traditional and got candy colored ones — like we had on the tree when I was a kid. The other night I walked Gracie down by the lake and looked up to see them glowing through our living room windows. It looked like any other year, at Christmas.
I dropped most of my cards in the mail last week, and a few more this week. Coming back from the mailbox the other day, I spied a large box at the end of the driveway. “Are you expecting anything?” I asked — we’re careful not to ruin the surprise of presents ordered by mail.
“My parents said they were sending something,” Cody said. “But it’s not a Christmas present. They said we should open it now.”
Inside were two boxes of dozens of Christmas ornaments, from their own collection. “They’re for our tree. So we can decorate it this year.”
So now our tree sits in the living room, glowing with its colorful fairy lights, flush with borrowed ornaments from so many past Christmases. I turn the lights on every day in the morning, and off at night. As I work at my desk throughout the day, I look over at it, this unmistakable symbol of winter, of Christmas, of the end of the year.
It was a special gift, made that way through thought, and care, and effort. Like all the best holiday traditions.