Eva Murray: Light the candles
I put together a tabletop Advent wreath on the first Sunday of Advent, which was Dec. 2. There was no reason for it but that it looked nice, and smelled nice, and reminded me of the traditions of some friends whose customs I admire and who always have an advent wreath. Is a borrowed observance entirely legal? I hope so, because there are more where that came from.
I cut the balsam and holly from the bushes down the road, plants lovingly tended for years by our neighbor Betsy. She has been gone for some time now but she, and her gardening, is still something of an institution around here. In part my Advent wreath honored her, although nobody would know that but me. We didn’t have the usual purple and pink candles, but I don’t feel the need to worry about the ecclesiastical calendar anyway; the four candles would be red or white because that’s what I had on hand, here on this island without a store. As it happened, a couple of the red tapers were already cracked, somehow damaged in transit, so the Advent candles would be white. I’ll keep those broken candles as they will still make perfectly good emergency power-outage candles should we require such this winter. We rarely do. My collection of power-failure candles is large, but in reality, our need is minimal.
Saint Nicholas’ Day fell on Dec. 6. Saint Nick happens to be a patron saint of some of my jobs, most of my neighbors and quite a bit of the prevailing weather. He is listed as the patron of danger on the water, of ships and the sea, of ship chandlers and ship’s carpenters, of mariners, navigators, fishermen and pirates, of thunderstorms and gales and the victims of shipwrecks. He is the patron of misunderstandings, unjust lawsuits and the falsely accused, not to mention marriages in general. Personally, I note this esteemed patron of blacksmiths, bakers, brewers, notaries, scholars, teachers and schoolchildren, parish clerks and poets, ferrymen, firefighters, dockworkers and true lovers. Should you care he is also the patron of the Royal School of Church Music in London and the military police. Fairly diverse interests had our Nicholas. Oh, yes, of course: candle makers, too.
The clerk asked me whether I celebrated Hanukkah. I told her I celebrated more or less everything that has food involved. She said, 'Well, that’s good, it means you’re open.' To be totally honest I figured it meant I was a glutton.
Dec 8, in addition to being my sister-in-law’s birthday, was the first night of Hanukkah this year. I light a menorah in honor of a hero of mine, my great-grandmother Rosa, who I never met. She walked from Minsk to Bremerhaven with a couple of very small children as they were burning down the villages behind her. Our neighbor the bigot had something to say once a few years ago, and I could have easily ignored him not being particularly Jewish. I chose not to; I chose to be offended, because Rosa walked so far to bring her children to safety in this country. The tradition is to put the Hanukkah candles in the window for all to see, at least to the extent that it is safe to do so. Take that, you with the big mouth; I will not forget. (He’s gone now too, anyway.) I did have a hard time finding menorah candles this year. One year I got some that had been in storage for so long --and faded so badly—that they were mostly all a sort of earwax color. I finally found some at the Hannaford in Scarborough (which was by the way the biggest grocery store I have ever seen in my life). I bought an extra box, just in case. The clerk asked me whether I celebrated Hanukkah. I told her I celebrated more or less everything that has food involved. She said, “Well, that’s good, it means you’re open.” To be totally honest I figured it meant I was a glutton.
Then, we have Santa Lucia on the 13th. Perhaps that was the longest night of the year before Pope Gregory adjusted the calendar back in the 1500s to get the spring equinox back in place. In these more safety-conscious and enlightened times it is considered entirely normal for those youngsters of Swedish descent who parade down the aisle on Saint Lucia Day in white dresses and red ribbons to wear electric candles in their crowns of greenery. No nice, safe battery-operated candles in the wreath for us; no, poor excuse for a parent that I am, I built sturdy armatures of Romex, because we just happen to have short sections of the stiff three-conductor copper house wire here and there around the place anyway, and despite all sense and wisdom, we lit real candles. She didn’t have far to parade; we just basically took a picture, and no cardamom-scented Lucia buns or children’s pigtails were harmed in the making of this Kodak moment. We aren’t even Swedish.
On the night of the winter solstice, we feast here at my house, and there are candles in a Yule log, largely because my mother had one. Paul found a pretty piece of white birch and made it for me when we were first married. I never told him outright that I’d rather have my moments of church, if that’s what you want to call it, in the woods or under the stars or standing in the sea. I never really had to. It seems that sensibility is not uncommon on this island.
Christmas Eve means a pot-luck supper at the island church, and Secret Santa (a.k.a. the community flashlight exchange, if you are lucky). In addition to the now well-experienced local Santas Peter and Maury, we’ve had Rambo Claus, Kiwi Claus, Mrs. Claus, and Paul did it once in, I think, 2004. He was a quiet Santa without a lot of hullabaloo and theater, but that turned out to be exactly to the liking of babies, and Gardner and Jacob, both aged Very Little, had photos taken in the arms of this gentle Santa who didn’t make them nervous.
Christmas dinner is a simple affair at home with kids, with a nice roast beef and the Martinelli’s. We always used to put out wine glasses for them at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner when they were little, and they had sparkling cider, very elegant. These days both can and would drink me under the table—one favors very good Scotch when he can afford it, which isn’t very often, while the other is quite content with cheap suds with the rugby team—but at Christmas and Thanksgiving they still expect Martinelli’s.
Sometime shortly after Christmas we go to the mainland to see family, but not until the weather permits and one of the regulars is here to substitute as babysitter of the generators in the powerhouse--these noisy green toddlers from Detroit who always threaten to break out in spots when they sense that “dad” is leaving, who fear thunderstorms and hurricanes, and who require that he always remember to give the sitter the phone number for where he’ll be, just in case of tantrum or overcrank or something else disagreeable. Our relatives understand our need for the Moveable Feast, and we all cook another round sometime a few days after Christmas.
Some years the knitters and tailors and quilters among us may keep “Greek Christmas,” orthodox Christmas or epiphany, as sometimes we need an extension on the homemade gifts. It’s a good excuse for another borrowed holiday. When only one sock is done by the 25th, it helps to consider that Christmas is celebrated in some places a week later. The food’s good, too.
Then, at last, there is Twelfth Night. I have always hated to take the tree down, and Paul’s no better at it, but we aren’t looking to maintain a firetrap. I figured out a few years ago that the answer is one last ceremonial hurrah, one final night of revelry, maybe another roast of beast, more ginger snaps to make the house smell like cloves as it should through the whole of the season, and a shot of black rum with or without hot chocolate. Light what’s left of the candles, put on the seasonal music one more time, and take the tree apart. There are Paul’s childhood ornaments — for him trains and owls and things that move (here’s the downside to those cool and efficient LED lights: no radiant heat to make the little tin stars turn). Down comes the angel, who in all honesty would look more like an escapee from La Boheme but for her snowflake halo. Finally, back into the box goes the little bell inscribed “1989” from the top of our wedding cake. That glass bell was a stroke of absolute genius on my mother’s part; who else knows what to do with their wedding cake ornament? Each year, this sentimental trinket gets to see daylight again for a couple of weeks, hanging in a fir tree in our happy home, this ethnically-befuddled, candle-lit place that smells like Lucia buns and latkes and baklava.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.
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