This weekend begins a chain of traditions I've been building with my family for twenty years.
Early Saturday morning, I'll climb up in the attic and pull down the holiday lights, bunting, evergreen trim, and ribbons and bows we use to decorate our house for Christmas every year. I'll tap my "inner Martha Stewart" as I weave the trim around the staircase and across the balcony railing, then thread white lights through the trim to turn our day-to-day home into a holiday wonderland.
While I'm trimming the stairs, one of the kids will be out in the yard cutting holly branches bursting with bright red berries. The holly goes everywhere – in vases of other yard cuttings, around the base of lamps, behind framed photos on the walls, around the candles that are now sitting on the window sills and in the middle of the dining room table. All the while, apple cider, infused with cinnamon sticks and whole cloves, will simmer on top of the stove. In a matter of a couple of hours, it will look and smell in here the way it does every year about this time: which is to say, just like Christmas.
Sunday, we'll get our Christmas tree. We have a high ceiling, so we usually aim for a fir about seven feet tall. When we can, we buy our tree from a local farmer who grows it organically on his farm in Pennsylvania. It is not perfectly shaped; a stray bird's nest may be hiding in the crotch of a couple of tall branches. No matter. "Oh…that smells sooooo good," everyone says in his or her own time. We'll trim the bottom to fit into the Christmas stand, and save the branches to add more Christmasy smells to the house or put on the porch to make a bed for the candles we'll light there on Christmas Eve.
When the tree is up, and we're sure it's not going to fall down, we'll string the lights, starting at the bottom and swirling our way to the top. The stair lights are white; the lights that go on the tree are a pixie mix of blue, yellow, green, orange and red. As the day draws on and evening approaches, the lights will get brighter, warmer. Our house is never so cozy as it is during Christmas, illuminated as it is with nothing more than small orbs of light shining out towards us and bidding us to relax.
Next come our ornaments. We've traveled a lot, a fact reflected in the delightful international array of baubles we hang on our tree. Each piece tells a story – we have a small carving of the Sydney Harbor bridge my son and I got when I visited him there during his college semester abroad. A miniature pair of hand painted clogs reminds us of our trip to Holland. Prayer beads harken from Turkey, origami from Japan. Hanging the ornaments gives us a chance to relive our history via conversation made up of "Remember when…?" and "Boy, I loved that trip to …"
By Christmas Eve, we will have made our favorite cookies and set the table for the annual holiday party we host for our family, neighbors and friends. Everyone will bring something delicious to eat. I will make what I make every year: my "red, white and green" salad (spinach, cranberries, feta cheese); killer egg nog (yes, the "real" thing – which is why most people walk to the party!); cheese fondue; linzer tortes (rich shortbread cutouts filled with tart Scottish berry jam), and decadent pecan puffs (butter, flour, confectioner's sugar, ground pecans) and gingerbread (both from the Joy of Cooking).
The guests come, the house comes alive, and then … everyone goes home. This is the moment we wait for: when just our family sits in front of the gay tree with only candle light dancing in the background, when our talk turns to how lucky we are.
Yes, we'll open presents in the morning.
But our holiday is not about the presents. What we'll talk about, and remember, at least until next year, is the tradition we've established over 20 years: the ritual of family, friends, food – and a house that, for a few weeks at least, is transformed into a wonderland.