I’m not a perfectionist by nature. Except for the last 31 days of the year, when I seem to suddenly morph into one. It’s as if those the first 334 days don’t count. During that time, I don’t seem to mind so much if the day’s events and household chores don’t turn out the way I want them to. So why does Christmas have to be so picture perfect?
Why do I not care if my pots, pans, and Pyrex are stacked neatly in my cabinet next to the stove, but the ornaments hanging from the tree must do so in descending order?
Why do I put off hanging up my clothes until I can’t see the bottom floor of my closet, but every stocking, ribbon, wreath, and holly branch must be hung carefully and with military precision?
Why do I rush, race, scour, and search with such intensity to find the ideal gift, the exact right size, the perfect scent, when the other 334 days I simply walk by something and say, “This will do,” without much thought?
I used to think that during the holidays my home was supposed to be pretty, smell pretty, because Christmas comes around but once a year. If it happened every single day, let’s face it, it would cease to be special. So for one month a year, I try and make my surroundings look as lovely, as homey, as festive, and as warm as I possibly can.
But along the way, I have learned these things that we prop, plump, and place on our mantles, doors, and trees are in themselves the very objects that make our lives special, not just for one month, but actually for all 365 days of the year. It’s just that, for that one month at least, we get to dust them off, lug them from the basement, trim a tree with them, and display them in all of their glittery beauty and pine-scented glory.
They represent the most basic values in our lives. The stockings we hang so meticulously remind us of Saint Nicholas and of charitable giving and compassion for those less fortunate. The lights we drape around our trees remind us of how Christ gave light to the world and the nativity beautifully illustrates the story of his birth. The mistletoe signifies the healing power of love and the Yule log will never let us forget about the importance of hard work and the consequent celebration of it.
Most of us have traditions and symbols of our own that we display at Christmas, or Hanukah or Winter Solstice . . . whatever faith we have embraced. Mine is an orange. Yep, as in the fruit. It took me many, many, many years to figure out its significance in my life around this time of the year, but I finally did. Every single Christmas, up until her death 15 years ago, my grandmother gave us an orange as a Christmas present. That would be it.
Well, she always threw some cash in with it, but each and every year she would place a shiny, plump orange in a white box with tissue paper inside it and wrap it in festive paper and top it with a bow. As a kid, I never thought much of it. I’d just push the orange to the side and tuck my twenty dollar bill in my pocket. Sometimes, if we were lucky, she would wrap one of those chocolate oranges, the ones you break open and peel the chocolate pieces off like wedges of fruit. I still crave those every Christmas now that she’s gone.
One day, not long before she passed, I finally asked her what was up with all the oranges. So she told me her story; a story of growing up one of 12 children during the Great Depression in a period of time and space that, along with World War II, would fundamentally shape the rest of her life. She never could understand the plastic toys, the limited edition action figures, the $100 dollar cashmere sweaters; things to be used or worn briefly, then tossed aside, forgotten and unimportant. She knew we were kids and liked toys so she added some money into our orange box, but she never bought us such things. We would have to buy them ourselves.
See, for her and her family, there were no fancy presents or store bought decorations to hang on trees. It was simple. There wasn’t a choice really, but still it never occurred to them. Christmas was about being together. It was about decorating a small pine tree from the woods with pinecones and paper angels. It was about waking up on Christmas and finding an orange and a piece of chocolate under the tree, something rare and wonderful. It was about being together through the toughest of times and celebrating their good fortune to have each other.
So, hearing that, it finally made sense to me, this giving of an orange. I remember my parents putting them in each other’s stockings. My Dad would receive them from his patients who could afford little else but wanted to say thank you at Christmas time. We always had oranges around during my childhood holidays, much like a wreath, or poinsettias or an angel set atop a Christmas tree. To me, this piece of fruit symbolizes the sweetness of the little things, good health, resilience in hard times, and the permanence of family. It’s something I hope to pass along to other generations too, just like my grandmother did.
All year long, we walk right by all sorts of things that should hold a particular meaning to us without even a blink. We are busy after all. But on Christmas, we get to relish them, display them from the rooftops, and rejoice loudly around these tangible things that represent a greater purpose, a greater meaning.
It’s the time of the year when we celebrate together the birth of Jesus and a voice that will forever speak and remind us of forgiveness, compassion, responsibility to humanity, faith, and love. In what sometimes can feel like an imperfect world that sounds pretty perfect to me.