Sunday, December 18, 2016

Repost from 2014

This is a repost from a couple years ago but I still think it's true. I still think that there is something "courageous" about being joyful in the midst of difficult times, and part of that is decorating and giving gifts, even if the gifts are by necessity smaller and more practical.....

One thing I always enjoy looking at on my travels on Amtrak are all the small towns we pass through. Granted, train tracks often do not run through the "garden spot" of towns (NIMBY was alive, even back when the railroads were built), but occasionally you do get a glimpse of a little old downtown.

And at this time of year, especially, you see the decorations. My own not-so-small town (15,000 people) has lighted displays (candles or bells or stylized stars) that hook onto the street lights and that light up at night.

In other towns, you see those tinsel decorations. Or the signs stretching across the street saying "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" or, occasionally, still, "Merry Christmas." Or strings of lights strung across the narrow-ish main streets. Or any other number of displays.

I love small-town Christmas decorations. I suppose that comes from reading too many Mari Sandoz and Bess Streator Aldrich short stories, and from looking at reprints of old, old copies of "The Farmer's Wife" and similar publications. I can imagine what a small-town Christmas was like fifty or seventy years ago - smaller, closer, fewer presents and more of them likely to be things like boot socks or new flannel nightgowns, more homemade stuff. And yeah, that's probably an idealization of reality, but based on the sheer number of homemade candy recipes in those old magazines, I think there probably WAS more making stuff yourself.

To me, it seems like there's a certain bravery (maybe that's not the right word) in the small-town Christmas decorating. The world is going to heck - it has always been going to heck, whether it was because of the Depression or the war or unrest or a drought or the steel mill closing or layoffs at the Ford plant - and yet, those small towns still decorated. They still said there was something worth celebrating. (And perhaps, in those times when the world seemed especially to be going to heck, the celebrations were even more needed and more important). And you did what you could, even if you couldn't have much monetary outlay - you made divinity with eggs from the farm and sugar carefully kept back from each month's ration. Or you took down the mirror from the living room wall and turned it into a frozen pond with some cotton wool and a couple of the children's toys. Or the city fathers dug out the previous years' decorations and cleaned them up and made them make do.

And maybe I am romanticizing it, but hearing my parents talk of their childhood Christmases, and remembering my own (in a family that was better off but still needed to be frugal - this was, after all, the 1970s), but we did do some of those things - make our own decorations, and carefully save the ones from previous years (I remember being baffled when I got older and found out some of my friends bought all-new Christmas decorations every year. What became of the old ones? Wouldn't they miss not seeing the same bells and stars and Raggedy Anns and everything the next year? I would have.) And we made cookies and candy - this was the only time we ever really made candy, partly because of the belief that the rest of the year was too humid for it to turn out right.

And while I'm not sure I'd want to get JUST boot socks or face soap for Christmas, I wonder if sometimes we've lost a little bit in how slick and commercial the holiday has become, and how sometimes it seems more about impressing the other people than giving them something they will truly use and enjoy.

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