Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Winging It at Christmas

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Does Christmas ever go that way these days, I wonder -- as it does in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and all the old holiday standards?

Our world is so fractionated, our faithful friends so far away. If those golden days of yore ever did exist, it often seems they won’t come again.

I remember hearing that song as a teenager, as we decorated the huge tree we had gathered from a friend’s farm. I knew then that I would always recall, in the way you know you’ll never forget your first kiss, how our faithful friends had gathered near to us once more.

My family shared every Christmas with the family of Roz and Norman Avnet, my parents’ closest friends. As we Dennis and Avnet kids grew from rugrats to college students, we always knew that year’s end would bring another visit from the Avnets, another tree, and more olden days made new.

So it is that every Christmas, I pull out the old Frank Sinatra album with that song on it, to hear Frankie sing of those happy golden days.

These days, there’s a 12-year-old girl in my life. We’re on the same page about the brilliance of the Beatles, but it must be said that she doubts the power of this particular Christmas song to transform the darkest days of the year.

Last weekend on the drive out to cut a Christmas tree in the national forest above Ripton, I put Sinatra’s Christmas album on the car’s CD player.

It took less than 60 seconds for the 12-year-old’s voice to drift up from the back seat.

“Whoa,” she said. “This is a really corny album.”

Indeed it is. If you’re gonna go retro, I figure, go with the best.

But there are moments when the nostalgia of familiar carols seems just a sad echo of what we’ve lost.

Maybe there are people out there who know what every Christmas will be like – what they’ll bake, just who will visit when, what they’ll eat for Christmas dinner.
But that’s not how my holidays go these days, and I know I’m not alone. So many of us have too many options, too many uncertainties in our lives, to know ahead of time how the details of the holidays will unfold.

Maybe we could pretty much predict things when most of the kids were young and at home. But now they’re in college or unleashed upon the world as young adults. There’s no telling how it will all come together.

Last Christmas I relived some of those holidays of yore by visiting Judy Avnet, my oldest friend, and her family. But this year, Judy’s older son, Cory, leaves on Christmas Day for a month in South Africa. His brother, Greg, will be at home, but the holiday will be marked earlier than usual, exact day still to be determined. We’re invited but the dates remain unclear.

Another option, to visit my brother and his wife and kids near Boston, is similarly in flux as we try to coordinate eight individuals’ schedules.

The five of them will come in to their Boston-area home from all corners – there to join the two dogs who are the home’s only everyday residents: My brother from Palo Alto where he oversees his law firms’ invasion of Silicon Valley; his wife from a bicoastal existence that finds her in Boston one week, Palo Alto the next.

Their son Luke will arrive from Portland, Oregon, where he’s a professional musician. Older daughter Charlotte will bomb in from the University of Colorado, where she’s majoring in skiing and extroversion. Younger daughter Clara is departing from Sarah Lawrence, halfway through her sophomore year, to study and grow vegetables in Maine.


Americans used to navigate their way through Christmas as if performing a script. Now we wing it.

But I wouldn’t trade those old memories of scripted Christmases for all the PlayStations in China.

The Avnets’ station wagon would pull into our driveway after their long trip up from New York. We piled right back in to go cut the tree before it got dark.
As we brought the 12-foot pine in through the front door, my mother would say every year, “It’s too big! Take it back!”

On Christmas morning, we five kids would explode into the family room to open our presents -- only to be told we had to wait “until everyone gets up.” (Translation: Our parents had stayed up late and were now regretting that post-midnight eggnog.)

After a frenzy of opening presents, we’d adjourn to the dining room to inhale our traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs and venison.


But it’s tough to re-create those days. And there’s something to be said for winging it. You never know when something will turn into its own new tradition.

Perhaps this year, we’ll just stay put right here in Vermont. Haul out the Christmas ornaments, each with a happy little story attached to it, and hope the rain turns to snow. We’ll ask a few friends in for dinner and rent “White Christmas” (set in the fictional Pine Tree, Vt.) while wishing that Irving Berlin had written at least one more verse to the song.

We’ll play all the corny old carols, and hope even the 12-year-olds learn to appreciate them.

And I’ll contemplate the advice of a growing-older friend, whom I ran into at the co-op the other day.

My friend lost her husband this year and she’s still adjusting. She’s doing it slowly, by choice.

“What should I say in the column about Christmas?” I asked her.

“Everybody tries to do too much over the holidays,” she replied. We’re always thinking we have to rush into decisions about what to do next in life. We should all just use this time to slow down, she said. Let the future arrive in its own time.
I thought back to those boyhood Christmases -- when for a few days, maybe even a week, time just seemed to stop.

I decided right then to go as slowly as I could this Christmas, to just let it happen as it will.

Driving home from the co-op, I sang aloud the sweet old song.

"Through the years we all be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bough
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas now."

Merry Christmas, everyone.