Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
East Lansing, Michigan,
December 31
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.


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DECEMBER 19, 2011 5:25PM

A Cardinal on a Pinecone

Rate: 23 Flag

My father famously remarks every year that “Christmas is at our throats again.” He is not, categorically, a Little Ray of Sunshine, and for my whole life I have rolled my eyes when he says this, appeased him with fruitcake, and gone on about the business of making holiday magic.

This year, his genetic contribution is manifesting in me. It has been dark and rainy here, my mother is very ill, and there’s been a death in my extended family. My parents are not well enough to “make Christmas” any more, and for the first time, they have no tree, no decorations, and no Christmas village with its mirror lake hosting a tiny skating party. For the past few years I have “done” Christmas at their house and gone back in January to put it all away; this year they gently suggested that it was just too much for everybody, and that we should just not bother. My son, almost 15, is too old for the reading of Olive, The Other Reindeer, and actually forgot about the Advent box I have filled for him every year with tiny treats of money, candy and toys. I have, sometimes, a feeling that everything that Christmas should be is evading me, and I resent it.

I realized, yesterday, that Christmas is only nine days away and we still have no tree, I have baked no cookies, and I have not seen a single “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “White Christmas” or (my personal favorite) “Love, Actually.” The long window box that hangs from our porch is not, as it usually is by now, filled with an assortment of pine boughs, holly and mistletoe. I have bought gifts, but they aren’t wrapped, and I can’t seem to get myself excited about the usual ritual of putting on a Christmas CD, making myself a cup of hot chocolate with a candy cane in it, and blazing through piles of gifts, ribbon and paper with bits of Scotch tape stuck to the back of my hand. We have lights up because my husband is a better person than I am, and he somehow understood that it would be too unbearably sad not to have the tiny white lights wound around our porch columns to brighten the long, winter nights.

Desperate to find some holiday spirit, I noticed several mostly-empty jars of peanut butter in the pantry, and thought about my father making pine cone feeders for the birds. He is 85 now, and it’s too hard for him to maintain his traditional routine of putting out seed, suet cakes and other delights for the birds, but he trained me well. The peanut butter triggered a memory of sitting at the kitchen table in childhood, spreading peanut butter onto pine cones, rolling them in seed and hanging them like small Christmas gifts for the Cardinals, Bluejays, Grosbeaks and Tufted Titmice. We knew that the squirrels would find a way to get their fat, fluffy bodies onto the slenderest of filaments in order to steal a snack, and nobody much minded – squirrels have to eat, too.

And so, although I had a list of things that really needed doing, I went to hunt for pine cones in the woods near my parents' house. While I was there, I clipped some holly for the window box. Later, we bought a Christmas tree and carried the boxes of ornaments and stockings down from the attic. After the groceries were bought and stored, the laundry was humming, and my husband and son had started the annual business of adjusting the tree in its stand so that it pointed towards the ceiling rather than the North wall, I assembled my pine cones, the peanut butter jars, a knife and a bag of tiny seeds. Channeling my childhood self, I began to spread the nubbly shapes with peanut butter and roll them in seed, imagining the delight of some tiny feathered creature as he discovered one last beak-full of food tucked between the little shingles. Humming something, which turned out to be “Silent Night,” I found some yarn in my craft stash, and went into the cold, dark night to hang them from trees near our ground floor windows.

As I sat writing at my desk this morning, a flash of brightest red caught my eye. I looked up, and outside my window was a Cardinal, regal in his red cap with its jaunty feather even as he tried to hold on to the pine cone and eat his fill of nut butter and seeds. That lovely, red bird against the stark background of bare trees and gray sky was, for me, a miracle. In that moment, before he flew off to his family, I felt the warmth of connection to my father the bird lover, myself as a child, and the possibility of tiny, startling and beautiful occurrences that give us hope.

This Christmas is different, my family is changing, and nothing can stay the same forever. There is always beauty in the world, though, and it doesn’t come from the mall or from frantic human merry-making. It is always available, given graciously and freely by the natural world around us in the graceful arc of birch branches under snow, or the great silver coin of a full moon suspended in the winter sky. The natural world is always in flux; even as I admire a crystalline icicle there are miniscule seeds growing beneath the cold, damp earth. I have been trying desperately to hang on to seasons past, but the truth is that everything changes.

Sometimes, if we hustle, budget, strive, and calculate we can create a holiday that looks like it should, from the perfect tree in the front window to the ancestral bowl of figgy pudding after the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. If we are blessed with material wealth, we might even be able to give our loved ones everything they want in boxes with bright ribbons. Sometimes, though, if we stop trying to make things happen as they should, we are given the gift of a Cardinal on a pine cone.

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I guess it's all about doing for others. By the way, figgy pudding always brings a smile to my face.
I know this transition is difficult, especially the letting go of old traditions in favor of practicality. But it's still Christmas, and it will still be good. (I'd love to sit on the couch with you and watch "Love Actually." No one else will watch it with me.)
Ann, can I join you and Bell to watch "Love Actually"? I'll bring the wine. Maybe even cookies and hot buttered rum.

I appreciate this post--I spent the weekend snarling at my family while I cleaned house and unearthed the Christmas tree. The process of getting it all out, setting it all up, just to take it down again before school starts... it makes me tired. No one seems to care about it much any more.

This year, for the first time, my mother's health also isn't great, and her grandmother's creche set is still in the box. I'm not religious, but I'm there with you on tradition, and I need to see those silly plaster camels and sheep.
What a lovely new tradition, the peanut butter pine cone. The cardinal sighting was the reward your dad might not have been able to express in words, but he passed it on to you nonetheless. This is how we move into that space in time they inhabited. For several decades, my mother and I took a wreath to the cemetery, and laid it on my grandmother and grandfather's grave. In the car on the way home, we'd exchange memories of them, and laugh together, and miss them. This year, I will be taking a wreath to lay on my mom's grave, which is beside my grandmother and grandfather's. In the car on the way back to my folks house, it is my intention to remember aloud memories of mom, maybe laugh like a looney bird all by myself in the car. She'd like that.
I appreciate your tieing of past memories to present realities and finding a common thread which, regardless of changes we face in life, will remind us to be grateful. It's not always an angel on the Christmas tree; it can be just as lovely in the form of a cardinal, or a constant star in the sky.

Happy holidays.

I'd be happy to join you, Bell and Froggy watching Love Actually, which I like, actually.

This is another of your magnificent studies of mood, change and rediscovery, Ann, which I actually love.
Everything changes and then changes again. This last part of life is so bittersweet. I think we are learning about the small things now. And they seem so large when they are taken just as they are. Be at peace. It is all good. Relax.
". . . given graciously and freely". . . beauty is what changes.
"there is always beauty in the world" - yes, that. This piece is that, too, ann.
I think you found your perfect Christmas for this year.

I loved this. I often think that the magic of Christmas is the accumulation of small moments of past Christmases that we put together and remember as one. Too often, we depress ourselves by trying to recreate that whole rather than looking for more small moments.
All the expectations of Christmas depress me. Only the small moments redeem it.
You know, when I saw the title of this, I thought of one of those schmaltzy Christmas cards my dear old mother-in-law used to favor. Then, I thought, No! It's Ann's writing, so, worth a look! And not only am I rewarded with a well-told tale, I am recipient of a gift - again - of grace and love and beauty. Thanks, Ann, as ever. You are a good'un.
This is really lovely.
You make me want to visit your house, decorated or not.
I really enjoyed reading this. It's like "Gift of the Magi" for the 21st century.
My kids are grown, the fervor for Christmas is gone, and I'm very satisfied with that development. The Cardinal is more magical than any store-bought present.
Really lovely. The pine cone project sounds like a great idea for Jacob and me. And I think I will draft my husband and my friend (arriving from Frankfort tonight) to watch Love, Actually with me too!