In my corner of Asia, where Sweat has its own personality and my backyard looks like Barrie’s Neverland, holidays feel far away because there aren’t quite enough reminders. The surplus of candy corn, the spider-webbed columns of old Victorian houses, the vampire teeth in the quarter machines… we have none of that here. Especially as we are now in a period of mourning–our beloved king has passed–any holidays that might have touched our land have been dampened into solemnity.
The other night, a small blondie chased my cat around the house with a ball of twine, tripping over her feet and shrieking when Jet sprang at her. They played like this for hours in front of the plastic evergreen.
From where she sat on the couch, refreshing her memory on the story she was signing to the Deaf that night, Lila’s mother asked, “Now…why is the tree up?”
I smirked. “Erin has been asking me for weeks if we could put it up.” In fact, my housemate had woken one morning, singing carols, and asked me via text, Please please please please please……
“I suppose you gotta start working on feeling merry sometime, right? It’s not so easy here.”
“Yeah,” my other friend spoke up, “especially when the stores don’t remind you with ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ on repeat.”
“I’m not sure I miss that.”
“Though I do miss it feeling like the holidays…”
This time last year, it was nippy in Wisconsin. A tiny spritely thing with a sneaky, gap-toothed smile wrapped herself up in my scarf while I was still wearing it (“not so tight, friend. I gotta breathe…”). Her older sister, Evangeline, darted about by the pond, unleashing a paddle boat.
“…it’s not too cold for this?” I asked. Despite my old Psychology sweatshirt, my teeth chattered.
“It’s too cold!” Baby Sis hollered, cowering into my side. “We could tip, and then we’d freeze to death!”
“Nah, it’s fun! Babs, if you’re afraid of tipping, don’t come.”
“Aw, but Ev…”
“Then stop complaining.”
A few other siblings bordered the pond like rubber-neckers at a car wreck.
“It’s gonna tip!”
“Are you calling us fat?”
We clambered into the boat, me somehow not falling over Baby Sis, and we huddled on a bench while Evangeline dug an oar into the dock.
She pushed off, and we slowly drifted out. While Evangeline rowed, Baby Sis and I waved to the ones on the shore, who chased after us along the edge. The wind whipped off the surface of the water and flung Evangeline’s and my hair about our faces, and our noses grew drippy and red. Forever, the wind has been sending spirits of old memories to my head, like summer smells from long ago that call up smiling dreams. That day, I thought of old lullabies we used to sing in middle-school choir, songs that I used to imagine stories to, of women with long gray hair riding winds that had friendly faces. Of glittering fairies that changed the seasons with tiny dances. Or other strange childhood imaginings that even now stir up pangs of nostalgia and–still–expectation.
Later that week, we sang hymns around a door on which someone had nailed a laminated version of the 95 Theses, and another little sibling told me how they did something similar, sipping eggnog, after the first lighting of the tree. Baby Sis’s eyes sparkled. “That’s one of my favorite things!”
Nothing can squelch a child’s spirit.
I held a chunky Thai baby the other night and wondered what it would be like to hold my boyfriend’s niece when I flew home. She’d be right around that personable age then, the fun giggly era of life when they interact with you in utter innocence. And even better, a few months later, holidays for the first time…
Perhaps that’s been the pain and pleasure of being far from home this season. You grow up with the sparkling fairy tree and the candles and the music and get into the habit of holidays, until they start to feel like old gum in your mouth. Then whisked away to the other side of the world–to a new culture, a new language, a new look to the everyday of life–you ache at the glimmer of a wreath in a doorway. I mean, the other day at a home decorating store, I stood in front of a tacky Christmas pillow and wept. But something, at the same time, is restored.
“What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?” Erin asked me as we turned the tree in an attempt to hide a gargantuan hole.
“Putting out reindeer food. With the giant flecks of glitter in it and everything!”
“Did you do that last year, well, the year before you came?”
Thoughtful face. “Um…you know, I don’t think so…” But it’s your favorite thing! Why didn’t you? How could you NOT? Justify justify… “There aren’t really any more kids in the house who, well, believe in that sort of thing.” Sigh. “I wish we had.”
Maybe being told you can’t speak the language, or treated like a three-year-old because you sign like one, starts to take a psychological toll on you. But no way in anything am I not putting out reindeer food next year. (Maybe not here. The roaches would come.)
And that, I suppose, is the wonder of it. The holidays. The wonder of children who haven’t yet learned to stop marveling at tiny little imaginations that the wind whisks in.
“Jet’s so fast! Like she’s flying!” Lila giggled as the black cat tried to climb the Christmas tree.
I firmly removed her. Such habits, in tiny evil creatures, die hard. “She prances like a little reindeer.”
Jet collapsed on the floor, as she is prone to when she decides, rather abruptly, that she is bored.
A sudden cuddler like Baby Sis, Lila snuggled next to kitty on the floor.
“She’s too little to pull his sled,” she said and petted Jet’s silky fur. “She’s purring!”
feature photo: “…a wee bit of snow in Wisconsin…” (Leif Unverzagt)