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.
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.
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.