Merry Christmas

white Christmas

Be careful what you wish for. We had a white Christmas, all right — especially after it started to sleet and the clouds settled in. It couldn’t have gotten any whiter, or any drearier.

American bittersweet 2

Late in the morning, I took the camera on a short walk across the field to check up on the American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), of which we have just a couple vines on the property. I’ll admit I have collected a few sprigs for Christmas wreaths in past years, but since we have so little of it, I stopped. Collecting by camera will have to suffice.

American bittersweet

Unlike the more familiar East Asian species Celastrus orbiculatus, which is invasive in some areas, American bittersweet is in decline throughout its range due to over-collecting and, I suspect, over-browsing by deer. In almost 40 years, we’ve never found a new vine on the property. Up until 15 years ago there was a vine at the Far Field, too, but when its host trees fell over, that was the end of it. The two vines I visited today used to have a third companion, as well.

As a symbol of Christmas, bittersweet seems aptly named, at least as far as my own feelings about the holiday are concerned. For the first couple decades of my life, it was the unchallenged climax of the year, but now, I don’t know — I guess I prefer the smaller but more regular pleasures of daily life, and I no longer feel such an overwhelming urge to acquire new things. Christmas used to be all about the presents, but now seems significant mainly as a celebration of the slow return of light to the northern hemisphere; today’s gloomy weather simply made the holiday cheer more essential.


And of course I love that we get to bring a tree inside (though according to rigid family custom, that can’t happen until Christmas Eve) and decorate it with lights and a couple hundred ornaments, each with its own story. We have hand-painted Christmas balls that once belonged to my mother’s grandmother, and a couple of blown-egg Santa Clauses that my parents made in the first years of their marriage, before we were born. Originally there were a full dozen, each slightly different depending on the exact arrangement of glued felt pieces and cotton balls, but they, like the bittersweet, have suffered a gradual attrition. Mom still exclaims about how much work it was to empty all those eggs: “Never again!”

This year, my niece Elanor was old enough to help rather than hinder the tree-decorating process, which accounts for the unusual concentration of angels at about the two-foot line. She likes angels. And her Nanna told her something about each ornament they hung: “That’s a God’s-eye your Uncle Dave made when he was a boy. And here’s Santa Claus in the bathtub — isn’t he funny? A friend of ours gave this to us years and years ago.”

I was impressed by the extent to which the presence of a 4-and-a-half-year-old child could put the magic back in the holiday for me. She was very good about taking turns opening presents this morning, but was so excited by her own presents, at one point she actually started weeping for joy. She ran over and hugged her daddy after every present from him. And when everything had finally been opened, we discovered one present that nobody could remember giving. The odd thing was that her grandfather had been sitting on the floor with her the whole time reading the labels and making sure all the presents went to the proper recipients.

So a cheap plastic knick-knack suddenly acquired an aura of wonder, and I had a dim recollection of being five and taking it on faith that half my presents had been delivered in the middle of the night by a fat guy in a flying sleigh. Hey, it’s no weirder than the whole incarnation and virgin birth thing, right? Winter is, above all, a time for telling stories. Here’s wishing all my friends and readers an abundance of wonder this holiday season and in the year to come.

32 Replies to “Merry Christmas”

  1. Hiya, hey, I can’t understand the fruit in that bittersweet tree. Have you got a close up? Oh please. by the way, the background blue shape of the tree creates an amazing frame for the thin branch with the fuits!

    Beautiful fragment of your life. Thanks.

    Xmus is for kids,that’s for sure. For us, grown-ups, nothing compares to daily quality life – simple though intense! :) The thing is that most people are not interested in it, so they need Xmus for depth! (Oh, just ignore this last comment! It’s just I’m so critical with adults!)

    1. Glad you liked the photo and post. The closeup is here, but you can probably find better images by Googling. (I was working in low-light conditions and shooting quickly to avoid exposing the camera to too much precipitation.) Basically what you’re looking at are red berries with orangeish pods that have opened like wings.

      I think you’re right about adults, but I think it’s important too to keep in mind that a lot of folks don’t have the luxury of living a life of the mind. Some jobs are pure drudgery and leave little room for anything else but exhausted consumption of mass-media entertainment. If that’s your life, something like Christmas is going to loom very large indeed. Those with interesting hobbies will still find ways to challenge themselves, I’m sure, but unfortunately the education system does a very good job of driving the imagination out of people and turning them into passive consumers.

  2. How wonderful that you did get a white Christmas after all, and that you felt a bit of that old magic via your niece! Absolutely, it’s all about the children and I’m blessed with grandchildren now providing some magic. Yet, I do love the quiet daily life too but the rest of the year gives us plenty of that!

    I’m surprised that you have the tradition of decorating your tree Christmas Eve. Do you have German roots? My husband’s family was also strict about that but my parents who probably did the same in Finland would do it a few days earlier here in Canada, as I do now too.

    The bittersweet is not something I know of, probably doesn’t grow here thought I should check. Love the colours, so cheerful this time of year out in the woods, and your third photo shows it off marvelously. Cheers, Dave!

    1. Thanks, M-L! I asked my parents about the Christmas Eve thing and they said that was the custom in both their families, and felt it was once pretty widespread. Very few people used to put any decorations out prior to a week before Christmas, they said, and the reason why we used to do so much — popcorn and cranberry chains, decorating gingerbread men, paper chains, etc. — was to keep us kids busy and distracted until Christmas. They said it used to be the custom in thier families not to decorate the tree until after the kids had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, so it would be all the more magical the next morning. My mom also said that in her family they didn’t start wrapping presents until mid-way through her childhood, at her suggestion.

      1. Yes, that account of the tree being decorated on Christmas Eve once the children had gone to bed accords completely with my own experiences in Wales during the 1950s. Coming down to push open the door to a familiar room transformed by the scent of pine and the glorious sight of a conifer brushing the ceiling with its crowning star, branches aglow with tree-lights like garlands of boiled sweets, is my first memory of family Christmases. There was German blood on my mother’s side… our tree decorations were much-loved glass baubles from Germany… and as I’m pretty sure friends and neighbours had their trees up much earlier than ours, the custom of decorating on Christmas Eve seemed peculiar to us. (Christmas trees up by the end of November remains a sorry sight to me. You can have way too much of a good thing.)

        Your parent’s tree looks wonderful Dave, laden as it should be with memories of other happy times. I too have a cache of old decorations. Things inherited, made. gifted and a fair few that no-one can recall the origins of. (Those ‘designer’ trees with everything new and colour-coordinated are sure signs of a void where the heart should be.) This year Peter and I mislaid our tree-decorating box… it’s here somewhere but the Summer of building works has muddled everything… and so Christmas Eve saw me out in the garden with a pruning knife cutting bay, holly and fir tree boughs to decorate the chimney breast. The result seems pretty festive to us. I’m sure the box of old decorations will turn up by next Christmas and will be even more fun to riffle through having lain dormant for a while.

        1. Well, of course “Christmas” and “Wales” go together somewhat in our minds here due to the continued popularity of Dylan Thomas’ story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” so thanks for sharing this about your own Welsh childhood Christmases! I hope you’re able to find that box by next year. Old houses seem to have an inordinant number of nooks and crannies in whihch to lose things, even a small, relatively closet-deprived house like mine.

  3. The mostly secular Christmas tradition that I grew up celebrating does seem best suited to children. Without any kids around, we haven’t celebrated Christmas in many years.

    We enjoyed a white-dusted Christmas morning that soon melted under full sunshine. I’m not complaining.

    1. Nothing like those folks in the upper Midwest, eh? But I do wish we’d get at least enough to snowshoe in. We’re back to just two to three inches here after two days of rain. Bah humbug!

  4. This is great: “red berries with orangeish pods that have opened like wings.” I see it better now! If I google all the questions I have, i wouldn’t have time to communicate with people! :P

    About what you say of jobs… Mmm… I’m not sure about the problem being some jobs are bad, exhausting (if we leave out people who cannot live a life with the minimums we all need, in terms of physical needs I mean).

    The problems from consumerism are most people, not only the ones with exhausting jobs or the education system — we get what the majority generates, according to what artists and activists realized in the 20th century :), and also, there are people with no time for hobbies who have an amazing life of the mind, don’t you think? :)

    People are lazy, I think. So when they don’t have urging needs, they’d rather vegetate than feel alive. It’s less fun but it’s less effort! :D This is stronger than anything we might want to make them do, I suspect.

  5. Hey, got out of bed just to tell you suddenly it hit me I did the blow eggs too, when I was little. But mine weren’t Santas, just like balls. I think… I’m not sure. I’d love to see those balls from your bisabuela!!! (My guess is they’re not the golden ones…) ?

  6. Bless you, Dave. Holding you in my practice, as we say. Dunno what traction a couple hundred “om mani”s from a bad buddhist gets you, but whatever it is, you’ve got it.

  7. We had a white Christmas too, though it was nicely white, snow on the fields, pavements mostly safely clear from ice…..

    The bittersweet looks lovely. I too feel bittersweet about Christmas, like you I’m not into acquiring lots of stuff and am constantly perplexed by those who insist on the need for big presents to prove love or whatever.

    1. Well, it gets complicated when one has children, I’m sure. I’m sure we’d be able to radically de-emphasize gift-giving if it weren’t for the kid.

  8. “….which accounts for the unusual concentration of angels at about the two-foot line.”

    Yep, that’s where they hang out. With the little ones.

    Have a very very happy New Year, Dave, in whatever form of happiness you prefer.

  9. I love the first shot. A real white and off-white Christmas. And the unknown gift like afikomen or Elijah’s place at Passover, or at least like something out of an O’Henry story.

    For the first time this year, I think, I’m at a time and place where nothing is expected of me. Victoria and her family do everything to make Christmas happen here in Tennessee, and I’ve been reading and writing and eating and sleeping to my heart’s content. (Victoria forced me to do most of my grading before we hit the road, and I’m so glad she did.) It’s great to be with her family, too. I’m really enjoying the holidays.

    Merry Christmas from Columbia, where my thirteen-year-old spent several hours this week doing nothing but staring at and sorting through the presents under his grandmother’s tree. No unaccountable gifts here.

    1. Sounds like you’re really getting to kick back for a change. That’s good.

      The camera doesn’t know how to auto-focus in fog, and the light levels gave it trouble, too. I wasn’t sure I got that first shot right in the post-processing, so I’m glad to hear you liked it.

  10. Growing up Jewish made this whole time of the year a bit of a mystery for me. It was when I first really understood what it meant to not be a part of the dominant culture. We never celebrated Hanukkah either. That’s really such a minor holiday that didn’t create a single blip on our radar. I once sat on my paternal grandfather’s lap. He always gave us crazy Christmas presents when my siblings and I were very young. He was very big, round, and white-haired, but also very scary and a bit of a mean-spirited ogre. I think that was as close as I ever came to sitting on a Santa’s lap! Hah! Bad Santa! I have learned to love this time of the year, though, for the beauty of solstice, the long shadows, the dark nights.

    Looks like real winter there and sounds like you had a fine holiday, dave.

    1. Well, having grown up without television during a time when everybody watched the same three channels, I definitely know what it’s like to feel apart from the dominant culture! I did have the impression that Hanukkah didn’t used to be such a big deal, but it seems like many in the more liberal Jewish denominations need it as a Solstice celebration as much if not more so than an answer to Christmas, no?

  11. OK, this is about the bittersweet. Mom and I carefully kept track of the only vines near the lake (and there were only two or three) – in that part of central NY it was as rare as you say it is down your way. But this December, on our way back up here, I saw a tree totally engulfed in a bittersweet vine by the side of the road, I think near Saratoga. The same thing is true for butterfly weed. There are some big stands of it along the Northway but almost no wild plants left back where I grew up.

    1. Geez, I don’t know — when I see a tree engulfed in bittersweet like that, I tend to assume it’s the East Asian species. But I guess you’d have to see the leaf to be sure.

      Butterfly weed is relatively common around here. The deer do eat it, as they eat regular milkweed, but it’s hardly a favorite.

  12. Yes, it’s the children who give new life to our traditions — at Mom’s house, we had my sister’s children taking turns at the Menorah. (And why is there no collective word including both nieces and nephews?)

    Bittersweet — Hah, so that’s what those are! Some of my first trailside photos in Charlottesville were of the Oriental version. Since I had some trouble finding out how to distinguish the types, here is the PDF I found that tells how. The money quote:

    Asiatic Bittersweet is distinguished from the native American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens L.) by the fruits. In
    Asiatic Bittersweet, the fruits grow in clusters of 2-3 (up to 7 fruits) from the point where the leaves are
    attached. Long stretches of stem may have many clusters along their length. In American Bittersweet, fruits are
    numerous, orange-coated when ripe and are located only at the tips of branchlets, not along the length of the
    stems. Beware mislabeled nursery stock.

    Wikipedia comments that they hybridize freely, and posits that this may keep the American form’s genetic diversity from being lost altogether. (From what I know of such things, that’s really a toss-up.)

    1. And a bit more information from Duke University:

      The alternate, deciduous leaves of American Bittersweet are narrower than the nearly round leaves of Oriental Bittersweet. Because Oriental Bittersweet is so common, there are a large number of photos on the web that are labelled American Bittersweet, but are actually of Oriental Bittersweet. Orbicular leaf shape is a giveaway for Oriental. The flower arrangement is another clue — those of American Bittersweet are in terminal panicles, while those of Oriental are in axillary cymes.

      Also, oops on that apostrophe above. Can we haz preview back? ;-)

      1. Thanks for this extra information, David — really helpful. Should point visitors who come in from Google in the right direction.

        I might be able to re-introduce a comment preview or editing function like I had before, but I’m concerned about too much javascript slowing down load times. Also, the major plugin for that now charges for upgrades.

        1. Hmm… well, perhaps you can find some alternative, perhaps open-source version. I keep getting bitten by the ohnoseconds… and I just now saw the *other* typo, at the beginning of my first comment!

  13. I’m very late to this but it’s magical.

    My mum said they used to only do the tree on Christmas Eve. I think modern trees are designed to last a bit longer, the old ones used to drop needles at such a rate that 12 days was really all you got out of them.

    I used to love blowing eggs…

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