Keeping Christmas

The Advent Wreath, with its Christmas Week red candles.

I’ve been looking forward to this day all year long.

After a blessed week of merrymaking with my loved ones, of comings and goings, of a constantly running dishwasher and overflowing rooms, of precious family and friends-like-family under my roof and gathered around my table(s), of busy hands and an overflowing heart, today has been a day of sweet nothing.

For weeks my “to-do” list has shimmered with loved tasks, each days’ allotment idealistically exceeding the limits of physical possibility, while my freezers have steadily filled and my rooms assumed their fairest faces of the whole year. I’ve clipped holly and woven ivy and wired pine until you’d think my fingers would keep going through the motions while I sleep. I’ve turned the kitchen inside out over casseroles and cookies and conserve and caramels—and just as soon as everything was tidy once more, I’ve turned it inside out all over again. We’ve hauled chairs out of the attic and shuffled furniture and set tables in every conceivable place.

And in the very early mornings, I’ve sat with my Bible or my prayer book, staring at the constellations of stars on my Christmas tree and pondering that astonishing Story, making space for the wonder to re-enchant my heart.

A favorite Christmas gift: a lovely vintage feve from Belgium, sent from a beloved absent friend overseas. All ready to be baked into the Twelfth Night Cake!

I’ve loved every second of it, even the hard parts, for, as Philip and I are always reminding each other, life hurts because we love and have been loved. (I’ve cried over some of my happiest memories and I’ve welcomed them to the Christmas table of today because they are what my present happiness is built upon.)

For weeks, “my hands could scarce keep pace with my desire.” But today has been a pajama day; a day of utter and unapologetic indolence. It’s been a day for Russian tea and a Miss Read book and a constant rotation of cats vying for my lap. I’ve done bit of journaling, a bit of napping, a lot of sitting and remembering and enjoying. (Even the cold I’ve finally succumbed to doesn’t seem to be at odds with this gentle savoring—it only seems to enforce it.)

Tonight we’ll load up the Stack-O-Matic with Christmas records and sip some festive cocktails of my husband’s devising. We might crack out the chess board, or an Elizabeth Goudge story I’ve been wanting to share. And the winter night will gather out under the pines and creep up to the windows and perhaps even moan about the eaves of the house a bit. But inside, dear old Christmas will reign yet, ripened to the lovely prime of her sixth day.

I had the sweetest company while arranging the Christmas roses this year.

I’m well aware that a goodly portion of the world has moved on—the Twelve Days of Christmas seem to wear more of the wistfulness of legend than the habit of actuality in many circles. But Christmas is just too grand, too dear, too big to limit to one day. I remember being inconsolably sad on Christmas night as a little girl, distraught that it was “all over.” How thankful I am that both the tradition of my faith and the rhythms Philip and I have built into our own lives have made these twelve blessed days an experienced reality. I admit, it felt like pretending, at first, in those early years when we were just beginning to cultivate the culture of our home—to act like Christmas wasn’t over, when the world beyond deemed otherwise, was a very real challenge. It was like trying to touch a star, or grow into clothes that were too big. But that was just it—we grew into it. With a few years and a lot of memories under our belts, we’ve grown into Christmastide. I’ve gained the confidence—or the unconcern, whatever it is—to keep Christmas, not just observe it as it flies. In many ways, this old house, with its memories and sympathies and secrets, has given me that confidence; if anything, it knows what it means to stand still while the current of time swirls madly by on both sides.

The chickens' (and peacocks') Christmas Eve cornbread, still warm from the oven.

Before I close and head down to the barn, I wanted to share a bit from last Christmas, which, in the light of my previous post, I hope might be like a little holly-crowned lantern in your Christmas week.

~~~

Last Christmas was hard in a different way than this Christmas has been; last year was darkened with the shadow of loss, while this one has been pierced by the actual thorn of it. And yet, the Lord did some really beautiful things last year. (He did some beautiful things this year, too, but they are too fresh, like a clutch of roses only just unfurled, and bear a bit more keeping and pondering.) Looking back, I am astonished at how Love showed up in the midst of such pain, and I keep remembering a certain moment that seemed to hold it all in one lovely little vignette…

Daddy’s condition deteriorated rapidly last December, and the day before Christmas Eve was particularly challenging. The reality that some really excruciating decisions were looming cast such a pall over everything I felt very close to despair. A few cheering texts from Philip that afternoon, and a heart-to-heart phone call with my mother-in-law put fresh courage in my heart, however, and with renewed intention I dashed the tears from my eyes and got to work. Both guest rooms were made up with love and anticipation. Tables were set for 30 for Christmas Eve and preparations for another 15 on Christmas Day. A rum cake tucked in the oven and a thousand other items ticked off my list.

Hermione and Perdita enjoying more Christmas apples on the third day of Christmas.

Around three, I went out in the yard to gather holly and greenery to tuck over the pictures and wind into wreaths. It had been raining all day, and a quiet, white fog was rolling down the terraces of the west pasture. I hiked up to the rather uncanny corner where the ivy hangs in long ribbons from the trees, and gathered an armload in the hush of the dripping woods.

Coming back down the pasture with my bounty, I stopped suddenly and drew my breath, the tears stinging my eyes. My home reposed below, a beacon of warmth and light against all that gloom. Its very soul seemed to gleam from every window, and the Christmas lights twinkled merrily from the den. Glancing towards the barn, I saw my sheep, gathered in a little clutch by the doorway, watching me placidly, as only sheep who know their shepherd can watch—even from that distance I could see the contented movement of their jaws as they chewed their cud. I thought of those guest rooms all made up with decorated mantles and fires laid and freshly ironed pillowcases; of all those tables set; of the freezer in the basement stuffed with cookies and casseroles, and the boxes of homemade caramels in the kitchen, and the scent of that rum cake in the oven, and the holly on the back porch that soon would crown all the portraits, and the roses waiting to be arranged in my grandmother’s silver epergne.

And then, over all, the great Cause of all this preparation and coming celebration pierced my heart with a sword of joy. This home, this bit of earth, these animals, these friends, my dear Philip—it was all suddenly so beautiful to me that, although there were some major things I’d change if God handed me the reins for a moment, I was able to rejoice in the fact that He had over-abundantly answered my prayers for this Christmas in particular. I’d asked Him, out of my sadness, that my rooms would be filled with people I love; that I’d be able to make beds and cook and create memories for my dear ones in His name—and all this He gave, and was giving, with such extravagance I could hardly bear the swift, winged joy of the thing.

The wilderness, indeed, blossoms as the Rose!

I loved decking this sweet girl for the dining room mantle.

That night, my seventeen year-old neighbor brought over a gift: an arrangement she’d made herself of crimson roses, with holly and fir and two red candles. I was so deeply touched. It was like a kiss from God, a loving reminder.

“My mom said that red roses mean a lot to you,” she said.

I looked her straight in the eye. “There is not one thing you could have given me that would have meant more.”

~~~

The west pasture at sunset.

And finally, all of you dear souls who have written, messaged, emailed and commented—thank you. I never cease to be overwhelmed with the warmth of those who frequent this place, many of whom I’ve never met. I’m astonished at your patience, after such long stretches of silence! And you do me such an honor to read and respond to my words here. More than all, I want to thank you for your prayers—I know they have availed in large part to make this season in my life as special as it’s been. I’ve been surprised again and again this holiday at the genuine joy that keeps catching me in its arms—but it really should come as no surprise. You know when you’re being prayed for. Thank you.

December mornings

8 Responses to “Keeping Christmas”

  1. Diane says:

    Sending love to you, dear Lanier!

  2. Leslie Van Gorkom says:

    Your blog is a joy..reminding me of many years past in my own life. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. amy says:

    Perfectly perfect….May God Bless and keep you Lanier…and your dear Philip….in this brand spanking new year. Xo, Amy

  4. Julie says:

    Lanier – Thank you for this post. Your Christmas posts are some of my very favorite! A homemaking question for you. You mentioned a few times about cookies in the freezer. Do you make your dough ahead of time and pop it in the freezer to pull out later and bake up for fresh cookies? OR do you make and bake your cookies and store them in the freezer whole? Just curious, as I’m trying to figure out a way to change up my usual holiday baking for next year. I usually bake tons on one day, but the cookies don’t stay fresh for as long as they’re around. I’m thinking I should make a small batch here and there for the most freshness. Just wondering . . .

  5. Kathy says:

    Beautiful! Your words have a way of calming my harried soul and quieting my restless spirit. Thank you!

  6. Josie Ray says:

    Thank you so much for sharing a glimpse of your beautiful Christmas. It may seem strange to you, but your Christmas posts have become a part of my Christmas tradition. I absolutely love all of your photos (and words, of course!) from the last two posts this December. And the precious gingerbread men on your tree. May God bless your Twelfth Night festivities! I have “last day of Christmas” sadness today, but am doing my best to ward it off. Which may require a mincemeat pie. :-)

  7. Josie Ray says:

    p.s. The soft-rounded edges of the feve…almost like melting chocolates…very sweet. A tradition of which I had not heard. It is a dear collection.

  8. And again, I’m crying. Thank you, Lanier.

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