Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living. ~ Harold MacMillan
What is it about Christmas decorating that causes me to become consumed with joy from the moment I turn on the lights in my Christmas storage room until that fateful day sometime in late January when I finally turn that light off for another year?
Growing up with a grandmother who transformed her home with animated figures, rotating trees, flashing lights, and glitter on everything from ornaments to poinsettias into a Christmas wonderland, it was hard not to have some of the magic rub off on me. Walking into her home Thanksgiving afternoon when all the lights were finally turned on for the first time, marking the beginning of the holiday season, made Thanksgiving my absolute favorite holiday. I could hardly wait for her front door to open when we’d arrive for Thanksgiving dinner and be showered by the holiday spirit that began with the wreath on the front door and continued throughout every room.
From the tinsel curtains hung over every window to the rotating aluminum tree full of family ornaments to the light switch covers made by my grandmother, not a single detail was forgotten. Banisters were covered with garland, windows were outlined with lights, and tables were transformed into scenes full of wonder and excitement. Santa’s, angels, elves, stars, candy canes, carolers, and all the symbols of love and tradition that make Christmas special and irresistible could be found in every corner, in every room. Everywhere you looked there was yet another reminder of why it was truly the most wonderful time of year.
In July 1999 we lost my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, the spirit that made Christmas more than presents, shopping, and hustle and bustle. It was a devastating blow to our family, as is the loss of anyone, but the full extent of this loss was not to be felt until that November. As I pulled the light cord in the Christmas storage area, a rush of memories flooded the room. Standing there faced with boxes of decorations, frozen with grief, I cried. Unable to bear the sorrow, I closed my eyes, pulled the cord, and shut the door. How could there possibly be Christmas without my grandmother? She was the reason I began decorating. She was my inspiration. She was Christmas.
The emptiness I felt from the loss of my grandmother was horrible but the loss of my Christmas spirit as well made it unbearable. Days passed and I could find no joy…no reason to turn on that light in the storage room. I pushed myself to get through each day, getting done what had to be done, but my heart ached and my will faltered. Finding no solace in mourning, I began wondering what my grandmother was doing. Was she watching me? Was she anywhere other than in my broken heart?
It is my belief that no one truly dies as long as they are remembered in our hearts, yet the question remains, are they here with us, do they visit or is there reason for them to? As I struggled to come to terms with the loss of my grandmother, I asked myself how my grandmother would feel if she knew the holiday traditions she had spent so many years establishing had died with her.
In the months after my grandmother’s death, I never felt her presence, only the emptiness. When I began remembering all the wonderful holidays I had with my grandmother, reminiscing about lighting plum pudding, decorating trees, singing carols, visiting her home and listening to the stories of every decoration–every ornament, suddenly I felt a warmth surround me. I felt my grandmother’s presence as real as if she were standing right there. Tears welling in my eyes, a lump hard in my throat, I realized I had to turn on that light.
Pulling out boxes of decorations and doing my best to carry on the tradition my grandmother has gifted me with, I know she is here with me, guiding my hands, holding the ladder, giving me inspiration. I’ve even caught myself talking to her/asking for advise as I try to hide every wire or fix yet another set of lights.
My grandmother may not be here in the way that people readily accept, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is here. She is in every Christmas light, every mince pie, every strand of tinsel, every holiday greeting. I know she will be forever in my heart and during the holidays her presence is strongest.
This year a new Christmas movie came out starring Harry Connick Jr. called When Angels Sing. At the end of the movie, Michael, played by Harry Connick Jr., has a conversation with his son,
Michael: Do you remember when you were in the hospital and you asked me ‘Do you think people can still see us after they die?’
His son: Yes.
Michael: I think they do, so let’s make it worth their while.
Every year I do my best to make my home look better than the year before and every year when I finally light the whole house on Thanksgiving day, I ask my grandmother, “So Gram, what do you think?” As I stand there, looking at the memories filling every corner of the house I know my grandmother is with me loving every little detail.
I miss my grandmother every day, but know in order to keep her spirit alive I have to keep turning the light on, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.