Sensuous Christmas

A holiday exploding with sights, tastes and sounds.

In November, it’s easy to believe the chilly gray world, so beautiful and crisp just a month ago, has turned hostile. Bright leaves and blue skies have given way to a seemingly endless dreary horizon. As the mercury begins its relentless march toward freezing, just leaving the house can require major preparation and three layers.

Hibernation starts to seem like an awfully tempting option.

But then December arrives in a blaze of festive red and pine needles and snow. Christmas is a sensuous burst. I can’t think of another holiday that engages our senses so fully. Christmas is a jumble of memories and traditions old and new for me, each full of sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.

When I lived with my parents, my family would drive to the nearby Christmas tree farm and trudge around looking for the perfect tree. My sisters and I, bundled up with scarves and gloves, often had different ideas of precisely what constituted a paragon of tree-ness. Picking the 10-foot tree with the sparse bottom branches over the fat 9-foot tree would inevitably result in someone with hurt feelings stomping back to the truck to pout. But my parents had a cathedral ceiling in the family room, so we always got big, glorious Douglas firs. They were too tall and heavy to be anchored securely in the tree stand, so instead my parents plunked them in a bucket and tied them with twine to the railing. We had to either use a ladder or lean over the half-wall upstairs to decorate the top. We always listened to the same music, too: a record of Christmas songs sung by the Chipmunks. (To this day, when I’m doing dictation for my boss and I fast-forward, I can’t help but giggle and think he sounds a lot like Alvin.)

I always insist on live trees, to my fiancé’s disappointment. After the difficulty we had last year getting our tree into its stand, he threatened to buy a pre-lit tree at Wal-Mart. This is not an option, as my tree’s scent must greet us at the door with a wave of piney goodness. I understand the space constraints of our apartment will not allow for a 12-foot tree like my parents’, but I refuse to allow the tree to be shorter than me (and I’m pretty short). It also has to be a Douglas fir; I don’t approve of the scratchy Scotch pines.

I am in love with our tree this year. It’s decorated with a strand of multi-colored lights and shiny ornaments. I admire trees with specific color schemes, but I can’t ever reign myself in like that. We have a motley assortment of delicate red glass ornaments and wooden nutcrackers and shiny gold balls. We’ve accumulated them from a variety of places: presents from coworkers, finds at the quaint little shop in our college town, relics from our parents, cheap buys from Target. There’s even what appears to be a small pewter rat; I have no idea where my fiancé found him. I am passionately fond of anything red, so most of the ornaments are crimson, and cinnamon-spice candles have been plunked down around the apartment willy-nilly. I can’t light the candles for fear of the cat accidentally setting himself on fire, but I can’t wait to plug the tree in every night. There’s something so peaceful and happy about a glowing tree.

Every Christmas Eve, my grandfather, my aunt and uncle, and my three cousins gather with my immediate family for an early-evening feast before church. My mom makes the same things every year: crab soup that my sisters refuse to eat (too spicy!) but my fiancé loves, a juicy baked ham, and au gratin potatoes. We have warm dinner rolls and moss-green punch and iced tea. She bakes plates of cinnamon-sugar cookies and chocolate-chip cookies and a big rich chocolaty dessert of some kind (this varies from year to year). It is always delicious. Afterwards, as we open presents, my uncle and stepdad lie around on the floor, holding their stomachs and moaning about how they’ve eaten too much.

But now I have newer holiday food traditions, too. There are peppermint brownies and peppermint patty shots at the annual holiday party my fiancé and I have instituted. I spend hours making holiday-shaped chocolates from candy melts, dyeing white chocolate melts red and painting red bows on the little present-shaped molds and red ornaments on the lollipop-tree molds. We do an office cookie exchange, so one magical day I come home with seven dozen cookies. My best friend and her mother have an epic cookie-baking session, from which comes the delectable Rolo cookie. And while we didn’t have a Starbucks nearby growing up, now I get ridiculously excited about the advent of their cranberry bliss bars. (They are, indeed, full of bliss.)

When I think of Christmas tastes, fruits and vegetables are most emphatically not at the top of my list.

My family always goes to the Christmas Eve service at church with my grandfather, crammed together on one long wooden pew in our velvet and wool finery. I immediately scan the program to see if we’ll be singing my second-favorite Christmas hymn ever, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” We always sing my most-favorite, “Silent Night.” It’s an essential part of the service: everyone gets a candle, and we pass the candlelight from one person to another. (My sister always looks freaked out, as though she’s worrying that she might drop her candle and accidentally set the whole church ablaze.) Afterwards, the church lights dim, and there’s a beautiful moment of voices lifted together in song as the candles glow like little stars throughout the church.

Then the organist launches into the third verse, and she uses every last chord in her repertoire. If I’m sitting next to my stepdad, he inevitably starts to grimace, and I have to bite my lip to keep from giggling. It is awful. This happens on the last or penultimate verse of most of the hymns throughout the evening, but it seems particularly dreadful to destroy the end of “Silent Night” like that.

On the way home, we listen to “Feliz Navidad” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and other Christmas songs on the radio. My stepfather, a minister’s son, critiques the sermon. I watch the stars, my forehead pressed against the car window, and my breath fogs the cool glass. When we get home, I dawdle while my sisters make a mad dash for the warmth of the house, and I take a moment to make wishes on the brightest of them. It’s my own little Christmas Eve tradition.

I love Christmas for all of these things, and for others too innumerable to recount. It’s the perfect time to relish in the joyous sights and sounds around us, to appreciate the blessings we’ve all been given. It’s a shining light in the middle of winter darkness.

Article © 2005 by Jessica Emanuel