Angels in the Woods

Posted December 16th, 2016 by Candice

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It starts in late October when I pick up special-issue Christmas magazines.  Something fires in my brain.  Visions of cut-out sugar cookies, homemade breads for neighbors, our house turned into a picture-perfect vintage winter wonderland . . .

For Type-A control-freaks like me, Christmas represents the pinnacle of overachievement.  Pull out garland, lights, and mistletoe!  Dig out candles, ornaments, and tinsel!  My head teems with craft projects and design decor.  Never mind I have a ton of work.  Forget that perfection isn’t a realistic goal.  On with the show!

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After I’ve browbeaten my husband to hang the outside lights, I go to town with fake greenery and bead garlands.  No demure holly branches or pine cones for me.  Pile on the glitz!  This year I added a vintage tin barn on our porch as a touch of the unexpected.

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The inside of the house is next.  Rather than install one lavish display (I used to put up a seven-foot tree loaded with Victorian ornaments and would dress fifty bears), I “curate” vignettes of heirloom and vintage decorations.  My mother-in-law’s putz village always resides on the hutch in the dining room, but everything else is featured in different displays each year.

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I enjoy unpacking family treasures, aware I’m the final caretaker of these fragile old things.  I honor other people’s traditions—my husband’s, my stepfather’s, my grandparents’.  And of course, my own.

In my memory map, the Christmases-that-actually-were sit at a crossroads with the Christmases-that-never-existed.

~ ~ ~

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Each year when I set out my out my tiny plastic nativity, I am ten again, spending a precious dime on my first decoration.  That year, 1962, my stepfather cut down a cedar tree, scraggly and with a “bad” side, from our woods, and nailed two crossed pieces of lumber as a stand.

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My mother brought boxes of ornaments down from the attic.  I decorated the tree by myself, as I would the rest of my life.  My mother set out the gold-painted turkey carcass sleigh pulled by three mismatched reindeer.  Holiday cards of carolers were Scotch-taped to the mantel.  I wanted more.

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When I grew up, I decided, I’d decorate my whole house.  I’d open all my presents on Christmas Eve, not just the one I was allowed.  Supper would be party food eaten under the tree: cashews and French onion dip with potato chips, sugar cookies and ginger ale punch.  Christmas Eve held all the magic.

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With money from my first job, I bought decorations from Dart Drug, glitter-dusted sugar-plum garlands, candy canes, and pink plastic gumdrops.  At seventeen, I was already into themes.  Since then, I’ve blasted through several phases: Victorian, early children’s book, primitive Americana.  None of them felt genuine.

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One dusky December afternoon, I went into our woods and climbed a half-fallen oak tree.  I took two package tie-ons shaped like angels from my pocket.  Wrapping the pipe cleaners around my fingers like puppets, I listened to the angels.  I was nine and understood every word they whispered.  It was the only time Christmas ever felt real, that cold afternoon alone in the woods, but not that far from home.

~ ~ ~

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I was 35 when my mother died and wanted nothing to with Christmas.  I bought a small artificial tree and decorated it with miniature Charlie Brown ornaments from Hallmark.  Christmas Eve day, I insisted we go to Williamsburg.  It grew dark and still I had no plans to drive home.  As the Royal Albert outlet store was closing, I rashly purchased a set of bone china, originally priced at $1200, for $200.  I craved beautiful things but they did not bring back my mother.

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We ate Christmas Eve supper in a Holiday Inn on the way back home.  I glimpsed my reflection in the window, noting the tightness around my mouth.  We used the china exactly once.  And when we moved, I never found the little artificial tree or the Charlie Brown ornaments.  They had vanished.

I learned you cannot run away from Christmas, but for years and years, I dreaded the holiday and raced through the season like I was running through a burning building.

~ ~ ~

Heartburn started in August.  The only way I could cope with Christmas was to bury it in elaborate decorations and cookie exchanges with people I barely knew and rich lunches in restaurants where I was never comfortable.  I wrote zesty holiday letters and agonized over selections of Christmas cards.  The postage stamps had to coordinate.

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I created a schedule:  shopping done by Halloween, letter written before Thanksgiving, cards started on Thanksgiving evening, packages mailed by December 8, cards mailed by December 9, tree up December 10.  The check-list was less a tradition and more a set of marching orders.

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December 26, everything was put away except the tree.  No Southerner, even one as anal as I am, would tempt next year’s fate by taking the tree down before New Year’s Day.

We did “city” stuff, like attend The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center and hear The Messiah by the National Symphony.  I wore velvet and diamond earrings.  I was thin back then and always cold.  Inside and out.

~ ~ ~

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In my heart, I wanted to live in the country.  I wanted to cut our own Christmas tree and haul it back to our farmhouse in a red ’55 Chevy truck.  I wanted to stay up on Christmas Eve and hear the animals speak at midnight and see angels.

I wanted to make peace with Christmas.

I wanted to go home.

~ ~ ~

After a while, I realized that the house I live in is home and I could keep fighting Christmas or reach a compromise.

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I let go of the schedule (mostly).  I cut my present list.  I choose the parts of Christmas that are important to me.  But I still make a huge decorating fuss.

Eventually I wound my way back to the old mercury-glass ornaments and my mother’s mismatched reindeer.  Creating artful displays lets me feel like a window designer.

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Yet I get tired and cranky, as many women do this time of year.  We’re the ones who pull it off like a rabbit out of a hat.  For me, the stress of unattainable perfection weighs heavily and, in truth, no one gives a rip if the pink pre-lit tree clashes with the red pre-lit tree next to it.

For some reason, I feel Christmas gives me a chance to make right the failures and goals I didn’t achieve the previous eleven months.  No one heaps those expectations on me.  I do it all by myself, just as that ten-year-old girl took on decorating the tree all by herself.

 

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If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I need to do less.  To be still and quiet.  To find a patch of woods.  To wait for the angels.  If I listen,  they might whisper to me again.

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18 Responses to “Angels in the Woods”

  1. Elizabeth D says:

    Oh girlie, you brought me to tears with “I learned you cannot run away from Christmas, but for years and years, I dreaded the holiday and raced through the season like I was running through a burning building.” and listening for the angels. I so, so agree with all of this. Although, I’m still on the beginning side of being able to decorate. Hugs to you, e

    • Candice says:

      Better to decorate now when Christmas really feels upon us, than make ridiculous plans as early as October. Edinburgh must be incredible. I remember being in London around Thanksgiving and the streets were packed (I think they bused in entire countries overnight) and the lights were amazing. I loved it.

      I doubt I will ever reconcile the holiday. It’s too tangled with memories and unfulfilled wishes and a past that can’t be brought back, and maybe never existed.

  2. jama says:

    Love that pic of you and Frank, and enjoyed seeing all your lovely vintage decorations. There really is such pressure to be “happy” this time of year, and to outdo oneself with all the decorating, baking, shopping, etc. I’m learning to be satisfied with doing way less, but I agree that this holiday remains very challenging — a mixed bag of fond memories + regrets not only from the past year, but of one’s ENTIRE LIFE. It’s a reckoning like no other.

    • Candice says:

      Yes! Christmas, coming at the end of the year, points out what did/didn’t get done during the year. But we bring an entire lifetime of memories into that equation. Each year, the giant snowball gets bigger. I am not running through the season like I did for many years, but I still feel like the holiday is some sort of a marathon. It’s a relief when New Year’s comes . . .

      That photo of us was taken in 1988, I think, at a Holiday Inn where we had Thanksgiving dinner (how depressing is that?) The photo was free! I was very stylish and uncertain, a phase that lasted for years.

  3. Donna says:

    I respect the sense of care you have for the pieces of your history, and I understand the place where memory and sorrow and joy meet up in a confusing intersection that we call Christmas. I love reading your thoughts, following along as you figure out why you feel the way you do and make plans for new directions. It’s lovely to have a friend who is all razzle and dazzle!

    • Candice says:

      Maybe more razzle than dazzle . . . ! I think I’m too old to dazzle much. But I’m glad you and Dave share our house, your conversation, and your stories, a new tradition that pleases me to no end. The little girl inside is less alone the evening you-all come over.

  4. Loved this! It made me think about how crafting a tradition and a story are similar. You clearly excel at both.

    Am going to a random lot tomorrow to pick out a tree. Hoping my haplessness with traditions is not an idicator of my writing.

    • Candice says:

      Caroline, how smart you are to buy your tree nice and close to the actual day. People put up their trees the day after Thanksgiving and are probably sick of it by Christmas Day.

      We used to put up our tree around December 22 or 23, as people did back then. Enjoy your tree!

      And enjoy this year, the publication of your first book! I’m in awe of the books you wrote about two of my favorite writers . . . and am still peddling poor old Margaret Wise Brown, ten years now!

  5. You give us so much beauty with your honest words and bedazzling pictures. I am sitting beside a not-yet-decorated tree, one throw on the sofa, and two ceramic angels my Grandmere made. I did take a shower this morning. Just don’t have the ornamenting gene, but I love yours, even as I hear you wrestle. I suppose sometimes it’s a gift to turn off the lights.

    Wishing you merriment!

    • Candice says:

      Jeannine, with all your work this fall, the new books, the teaching, I’m amazed you can put up a tree at all! There is holiday spirit in your house without a sprig of holly. Here, we have to work at it.

      The best part of the tree (or trees) is their lights chase away the December gloom. I am tempted to keep little pre-lit trees in every room all winter . . .

      Cheers from Virginia!

  6. Melodye says:

    I crave vintage, kitchy ornaments and ribbon candies, but they do not bring back my Nana. This blog post, however….the memories (and tears) come flooding back.

    Thank you, Candice, and Merry Christmas!!!

    • Candice says:

      Ribbon candy! A hard candy Christmas, like Dolly Parton’s song, those creme-filled pillow mints, and peppermint logs. My mother made pastel wafer mints tinted green and pink, a Southern tradition I couldn’t master if I tried.

      Melodye, hit some of those fabulous flea markets in your neck of the woods and fill a bowl with vintage ornaments. It won’t be the same as your Nana’s . . . but they will honor her memory.

      Have a great Christmas!

  7. Steve Riley says:

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful story and the great photos of your decorations.
    It takes me back to my growing up on Stringfellow Road with the decorations going up inside and outside.
    How my mother, whom we lost at age thirty seven, would so meticulous decorate our home with the help of my brothers, sisters and me. Especially the tree. She would spend hours, after the children had finished, making sure every thing was just right down to the silver ice cicles. How I missed those Christmases of my youth.

    Let us be quiet and listen for the Angles this Christmas.

    Merry Christmas!

    Steve

    • Candice says:

      Steve, the last time I was in Northern Virginia, I couldn’t even find Stringfellow Road. If it’s like West Ox Road, it’s a four-lane highway now.

      When Pat, my sister, was still home she did the meticulous tinsel hanging. Sometimes we’d throw it on just for fun, but then we’d straighten it out again.

      Christmas memories are hard sometimes, but they also keep us warm. Yes, let’s be quiet and listen.

  8. Steve Riley says:

    Correction. We lost our mother when I was thirty seven.

  9. This is beautifully written.
    Merry Christmas Candice!

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