Creating New Holiday Traditions After a Loss

Ellen (from Gdynia, Poland): I’ve had a 22-year hiatus from the in-your-face, high volume, sticky holiday season.  But it’s made some inroads here in Gdynia, too, if more subtly.  Decorations have popped up, inflated Santas, nativity sets and other trappings are visible in shop windows, though mercifully they’re sticking to piped-in pop music. 

“What do you like about Christmas?” I asked Zusu, an adolescent student of mine.   

“School holidays.  Taking trips.  And – well, presents.”  She added the last a little sheepishly, grinning.   

I asked about Polish Christmas customs,  knowing not to expect much of the quaint or exotic; what years of Communism didn’t squelch, decades of Westernization have. And this is a progressive, very urban area. Still, it was a bit disappointing to learn that it’s much the same as in the West:  parties, festive family dinners, gifts and trees.   

Unsurprisingly, Christmas in Israel was non-existent outside Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem. This changed with the massive immigration from the ex-Soviet Union in the early ‘90s. Suddenly artificial trees, Santa-shaped chocolates and ornaments were stocked in kiosks even in Beer-Sheva.  I decided it was time to display dual ethnicity in our apartment and bought a tree. 

It was a misshapen, exaggeratedly artificial tree.  Forest Green, like the crayola, name alone suggestive of nature. Each overcolored limb was so laden with outsized ornaments, it tilted hysterically.  Fortunately it was a left tilt.  Tilted to the right, a battery was triggered to squeal out “The First Noel”.  Somehow, it was so unabashedly ugly, I loved it.   

My husband Bill groaned when I cleared the coffee table and gave it center place.  “Did you find that at the Bedouin Market?” BM: everything synonymous with sleaze.  Appropriate initials. 

He muttered about this being a Jewish country.  Made some truthful observations about its ornamental value.  But it was only muttering, no different than when I fished out our equally ugly brass menorah at Hanukkah and nagged him to light the candles.  Separately, they were bad enough. Side by side, tree and menorah were a godawful sight to behold.  I didn’t miss holiday season U.S. style, but I liked adding a hint of it, however tasteless, and so did he, for all the grumbles, which were automatic as “The First Noel” on a right tip of the tree.  It was a seasonal fixture for years, and his students, especially the Russian kids, liked it.   

About a decade later, I didn’t bother.  Maybe I wasn’t in a holiday frame of mind. The contents of the coffee table required too much dusting and rearranging. Or I was tired of the wax splotches from the menorah’s candles. Years hadn’t improved either, especially the garish little tree.  Its gaudy painted star wobbled.  Ornaments and branches were kinked or missing.   

“Where’s the tree?”  Bill asked one day.   

“Oh, somewhere in the other room.”  “The other room” – too perilously crowded and dangerous to navigate to be dignified by calling it a storage room – was one I often wished would spontaneously combust.   

“I miss it.”   

I nearly put out my eye a few times, came close to breaking a leg tripping over all the coiled extension cords, emerged strewn with cobwebs, but eventually recovered our tawdry holiday symbols.  Stuck them on the coffee table and plugged in lights.  Glad I did.  They didn’t appear the following year, and I didn’t miss them.  I was too busy missing him. Both menorah and tree were officially retired after his death. 

That year, there was a lot of rage on the bereavement forums and I joined in.  Shared rage at  how life doesn’t just keep going on, it merrily keeps going on.  Never mind that it’s so often a fake, over the top merriment.  We viciously dissected commercials.  Had a lively thread about outdoor ornaments we felt like displaying – mooning elves, Frosty with his broom firmly planted elsewhere, Santa and Rudolph committing indecent acts, etc.  That I was largely still at a safe distance from the bombardment of holiday cheer didn’t stop me from participating. 

Now the distance is closing. At this point, the glowing red-and-green lights lining Gdynia’s main street make me smile…much as the first snowfall did.  And I bought a tree the other day.  This one isn’t aesthetically challenged:  it’s a graceful little wooden tree, painted white with gilded edges and a tea candle holder at the tip of each bough.  It lights up the dark entry hall on a graceful high table which used to support an ugly stone cherub.  (I hate cherubs – they remind me of bats.) 

Just as the season’s final snowfall (April? May?) is sure to find me grousing, Is it ever going to end?, I’ll revert to Scrooge mode long before December 25.  In the meantime, I feel cautiously…cheerful. 

As for Starbucks, Ruth, there must be one consolation.  If they’ve jumpstarted the carols, haven’t they done the same with certain holidays-only flavors?  There’s something to be said for ginger and peppermint.

(Copyright 2007 by Ellen Dlott)

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