{It Feels, Smells, Looks Like Christmas – Mostly}

A couple of days past Thanksgiving as we camped along the northern California coast, I found myself saying to Chris, “It’s cold and dark, it feels like Christmas.” 

This is just of many holiday associations that confound my sense of what this holiday is about.


Evergreen Lodge, grounds

Chris & I have a (non-holiday) Nina Simone album in the truck, and in one of the songs, the melody to Good King Wenceslas is plucked out eerily against a quiet background. How this came to be, I have no idea. We’ve been listening to it since October and, every time, the reedy thin quality of the sound reminds me so perfectly of a scene in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (read aloud annually in my family). Weird to think we won’t be doing that, this year. (Or, maybe via Skype?)

This morning (I’m writing this from Yosemite Valley, although this won’t get posted until a couple of days hence), I washed my hair with the shampoo and conditioner provided at the Evergreen Lodge. It smells so good like pine, and as I bent my damp head to Chris for him to sample, he said, “You smell like Christmas.”


Tall trees!

Here at Yosemite, I can’t shake the Christmas feeling either. Driving into the park we pass through acre after acre of pine forest covered gently with snow. It’s a thin layer, only the beginnings of winter season, but I can’t help but feel Christmas cheer in the air, can’t help but want to tie red ribbons around the boughs and around everything really, to hang a star from the sharp white half moon high in the sky. This all looks like Christmas.

Yet it also seems somehow “wrong” that I have these associations.

We are a never-confirmed Catholic with a broad interest in the socio-political role of religion (me), and an almost-confirmed atheist (Chris). We both have personal, private spiritual lives, but what business do we have celebrating this Christian holiday? I suppose as much business as Starbucks has using red cups beginning the day after Halloween. We can do what we want. But I still think it’s strange, the way this holiday has turned out.

I suppose I’m trying to reconcile what this holiday is about. After talking with my dear best friend (who sadly I won’t share a Christmas cocktail with, this year) I’m pretty confident in the “family, friends, ritual” answer but it took a bit of processing this year, when we are more geographically removed than ever from all of these things.

For those who are reading and don’t (yet) know us well, we’re not in it for the “stuff” either. I will admit that we are lucky beneficiaries of a good bit of parental generosity at holiday time; but mostly, even in these family rituals, we try to keep the gift giving thoughtful. We don’t have any small children, and so we prioritize food traditions, well-spiced and -spiked drink, and good company.

Are these “Christmas,” then?


The common room at Evergreen, cozy fire

Earlier this year, I fell for the idea of celebrating Solstice rather than Christmas. Every autumn, I start waiting desperately for that moment the days start getting longer and lighter again. The feeling is especially poignant now that Chris and I live almost outside.

Winter solstice seems a most appropriate day to celebrate, and I think we will, in ways. It involves many of the same features: cold and dark and trees, for example. Food, and drink and family. Indeed, the roots of Christmas are found in these earlier solstice rituals. But when I casually floated the idea (of replacing Christmas) several times with various family members, I had no enthusiastic takers. I might have to work on this for a few years.

Instead, just as we rolled into Thanksgiving, Chris started to worry that our itinerant lifestyle might somehow impede our enjoyment of the cozy, lighted, festive aspects of the Christmas holiday. I teased him about our need to “visit a shopping mall” but I know what he means — I am glad about, and warmed by, the tree that I sit by here in the lodge, adorned with sparking fake fruit and lights. I feel some kind of joy at seeing decorations go up all around us. I love that the lighted snowy paths at our lodge look to me like we are living (for a few days) in the North Pole. 


Christmas pumpkin in wine country

Just to be sure that we wouldn’t feel only cold and dark, and no Christmas, I asked mom to mail the small box of decorations that I had put aside for our Cricket year. We have mini lights and a few unbreakable ornaments. I also bought our little pumpkin (still going strong long after Halloween) a winter hat, and he has joined us in feeling festive. The winter cheer begins.

Really, I don’t know what to make of all this, except for the power and strength of cultural association. Cold and dark, white and snowy, green and piney, red ribboned and generally festooned, twinkling lights and lilting familiar songs. Is this Christmas?

I think I reflect on this a bit every year, but it feels even more thoroughly confusing on the road.

Christmas pumpkin in the national forest

Christmas pumpkin in the national forest

Chris & I have no place to put a tree, no access to the boxes of ornaments exchanged for almost every year we have been a couple (except for the few hanging in the Cricket now). I won’t be able to participate in the ritual of memory lane back to childhood that decorations in my family home provide. (These are the sentimental things that make the holiday personal.) 

When I wrote this originally, we weren’t sure if we would be with family (though we were considering it); our predictable year-on-year-off schedule of Thanksgiving and Christmas with parents and in-laws has been disrupted. Ditto for those closest friends who I would celebrate with, always. (Again, the personal things that matter to us most.) 

After a couple of conversations and some personal reflection on what this holiday does mean to us, we just booked flights to Denver. I think we found the “meaning of Christmas” in these annual traditions and the chance to be close to some of those we love.

Where we are now there is no snow and plenty of sunshine. But it still is starting to feel like Christmas, because we are honing in on what makes us feel safe, cozy, loved. 


I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter about the semantics of the holiday, if what Chris & I call Christmas means some very wonderful things to us:

  • Connecting with those we care about
  • Fighting the (maybe) cold with color and coziness
  • Bringing sparking lights into the dark nights
  • Indulging in ways that warm our bellies and our souls
  • Finding creative ways to bring each other pleasure

We’ll be a bit sad to miss out this year on the gatherings that we know some of you will be hosting back home, the opportunities for love and connection. There are certainly many things we miss, and people are at the top of that list. But of course this year of travel is a pretty spectacular gift in itself. 

As we celebrated Thanksgiving on the road, we reflected on holidays past, back to our first year together; our “official” Thanksgiving meal involved asian airplane food 30,000 miles over the ocean. (My ever accommodating parents hosted us for pre-Thanksgiving turkey the week before we left.) Perhaps that is my lesson for Christmas, too: all the ornamentation is simply trimming on rituals that are more about the people we feel we belong with, and less about any particular belief system. Luckily, we have each other, and the ability to make new memories that we will retell, years hence, when we are all together again.

Whatever traditions you personally subscribe to, wishing you much love & Happy Holidays.


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