Up in the Attic

I recently learned that some people get all new Christmas decorations each year, and that people even choose an annual theme for their holiday décor. I guess, then, you could best categorize my theme as “attic.”

In keeping with the annoyances of 2020, there was mischief afoot in my attic this year. While decorating for Christmas, I discovered that Rudolph is now lame, one of my Snow Village houses needs gutter repair, and one nutcracker beheaded another.

No judgement here, but doesn’t rolling out new Christmas décor each year miss the point? There is such a profound joy that comes over me when I take out holiday items like Rudolph that have been around longer than I. Admittedly, Rudolph looks like he belongs in a Goodwill store. He’s marvelously tacky, with a strange tail and antlers composed of aluminum foil, circa 1940. But he will live on in our family forever, because since he caught my little girl’s eye from his post on my grandmother’s mantel, he just is Christmas. Before a creepy elf sat on a shelf, Rudolph was watching.

As I have written before, my husband and I are now 18 months into a purge of eliminating from our lives needless clutter and collectibles. This was mandatory as we moved into a condo, but that mindset has continued to govern my thinking, and this year the prospect of setting up the village and the nutcracker collection (each numbering over 25) was daunting.

There is a story behind those collections: every year I gave my daughters a nutcracker, with their name and date on the bottom. Each tells a tale, like the fishing nutcracker presented to Elena the year she caught a huge fish at the beach or the Herr Drosselmeyer nutcracker given to Emmy the first year she saw the Nutcracker. As for the Snow Village, my husband began the tradition of buying me a new Snow Village piece each year when we were young newlyweds. There was always a Saturday morning, early in the season, when Gabe took the girls shopping and when they came back, I had the cozy village alight for my girls to see: the florist shop open for business, the bank bustling, the town square and water tower in their places. But as much as I have loved the village over the years, the new minimalist me wonders if it’s time to pass these treasures along to my daughters. I find myself conflicted, feeling perhaps like my mom did when she stopped hosting holiday dinners, when she passed things along to me.

My daughter Elena convinced me our Christmas home needed at least the residential portion of the village, and she kindly set it up for me. I displayed the nutcrackers and am so glad for both. They, like Rudolph, are part of the powerful melancholy that is Christmas. They, like the North Star, lead me home—to that place deep inside me that is still a little girl in footy pajamas awakening to magic.

One day this week I had a particularly bad day—nothing major, just some mishaps, disappointments and annoyances that left me weepy and drained. On my drive home from work, I turned on the radio to cheer myself up and instead heard the opening strains of “Christmas Shoes.” I let myself wallow through that tear-jerker and then changed the channel only to find Ed Shearon’s “Supermarket Flowers.” What was the universe trying to tell me? By this point I was ugly crying, and those two songs made me realize that what I wanted on that day was what I can never again have: a mother. Mom would listen to me rant and rave and know just exactly what to say. I wanted home—not a place, but an emotional refuge.

About 10 years ago, Mom showed me something she had written. It was called “North Star” and told the tale of Christmas 1953, when she and Dad were stationed in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and unable to travel home. She had a 10-month old and wanted—more than any gift—to go home for Christmas. Their car was an old rattletrap, however, and wouldn’t make the significant journey. At the last minute, on Christmas Eve, an Air Force buddy offered Mom, Dad and baby Jim a ride. This was before our nation’s interstate system, which meant being cramped in the backseat for almost 20 hours, amidst luggage and the friend’s family gifts. My grandparents had already mailed Mom and Dad gifts, so there were no material surprises to look forward to. But Mom wrote that was the year she realized that Christmas is not about the trappings: Christmas is a feeling and Christmas is about home. Snow began to fall and the roads iced over, and the car slid its way along, virtually alone on the road. As the baby slept against her chest, Mom looked out the window and saw a brilliant star overhead. It was leading her home. For the rest of her life, Christmas Eve would remain her favorite day of the year, and she never stopped feeling the magical impact of that journey.

There’s a less-known Amy Grant song, “Heirlooms,” that is one of my favorites. It speaks to the religious gift of faith, and it perfectly captures the attic yule that simultaneously evokes both smiles and tears:

Up in the attic,
Down on my knees.
Lifetimes of boxes,
Timeless to me.

Letters and photographs,
Yellowed with years,
Some bringing laughter,
Some bringing tears.

Time never changes,
The memories, the faces
Of loved ones, who bring to me,

All that I come from,
And all that I live for,

And all that I’m going to be.
My precious family
Is more than an heirloom to me.

In this Covid season when we are not able to gather with so many whom we love, my hobbled Rudolph reminds me whose I am. I have leaned this old fella against a lamp; he deserves the rest. Rudolph, my friendly villagers and combative nutcrackers represent the importance of our emotional attics and the power of journeys home.

Merry Christmas.

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