I have fond memories of Christmas in the small town where I grew up.
Sleigh bells hung next to our door, and they rang often with neighbors bearing cookies — pfefferneusse, lebkuchen, spritz, divinity — and breads and coffee cakes made from recipes passed down by word of mouth through generations of Swedish, German, and Belgian families who lived in the town.
Women made wreaths, swags and tree ornaments for the house, and sewed and knitted presents for their families.
At 10:30 on Christmas Eve a carillon from one of the churches could be heard throughout the town. I would like to say that when we left the midnight service, a soft snow always was falling, but that only happens on the Hallmark channel.
After I grew up and lived in a string of city apartments, I tried to replicate the Christmas I remembered. Every year I promised myself that, when I had everything else done, I would bake Christmas cookies. I did save a lot of recipes — and still have them — but never have time to make anything. The best I ever manage is spice bread from a mix.
When I got my own house I tried to make my decorations. One year I went to the Audubon’s Christmas wreath workshop. I enjoyed the hot cider and the fire in the large fireplace, but my wreath looked skinny and misshapen. It ended up in a dark corner of the kitchen. Then one night I sat until two o’clock in the morning trying to make a Williamsburg-type topiary. When it was done, I was exhausted, my fingers were bleeding from pushing cloves into oranges, and the result didn’t look at all like the picture in the catalog.
My efforts to knit Christmas stockings for the family were not stellar. My son-in-law waited for four years for his. I made my father-in-law’s stocking without a pattern, and it ended being about 16 inches long and six inches wide — that’s a lot of space to fill with presents for a man in his 80s in a nursing home.
This year not only Christmas trees but budgets will be trimmed, and I decided it is a good time to change the way I plan. Rather than a “to do” list I am compiling an “I don’t have to do” list.
I will not clean and polish every room in the house. Why should I? As soon as the family arrives, shoes and backpacks are dropped in the hall and a half-full can of soda is placed on the kitchen counter that is still there when they leave.
Every decoration I ever collected does not have to be put out. In the English manor houses they could “deck the halls” because they had servants. Since I don’t, some of my ornaments will stay in their boxes. Chances are no one will notice.
Good friends do a fine job of baking Christmas cookies. I won’t feel guilty but happily munch on ones that were baked by someone else.
I will write a Christmas letter to keep in touch with distant friends, but I won’t try to win a Pulitzer or an Adobe PhotoShop prize.
Doing Christmas this way may not replicate the past I remember, but it will leave me energy and time to enjoy good friends and family and make new happy memories.
And that is what Christmas is all about.