Winter, Christmas Trees, and a Little Bit of Unexpected Magic

There needs to be a setting on my Fitbit for “walking through the snow in coveralls.” Regular steps seem wholly inadequate for the trudge that takes me between the house and the barns each morning and evening. Something between walking and swimming would do nicely I think…

The ranch has been blanketed with snow for the better part of a week.  Everything takes a little extra effort.  Waterers require heaters.  Three of my llamas are wearing coats.  One is being supplemented with grain.  The chickens are being fed black oil sunflower seeds for extra calories in addition to their regular food.  Stalls are getting messier, faster.  And, of course, there’s the two pair of socks and coverall wearing trudge.

This is the time of year that always makes farmers, ranchers, critter enthusiastic hobbyists, and almost farmgirls question our own sanity.

It’s too cold for humans,  we proclaim, tucked safely under our covers, dreading the moment that our feet hit the floor and our day begins in earnest.

It’s too cold for critters, we decide, putting a coat on an animal who, in the wild, definitely wouldn’t be wearing a coat.

It’s too cold for water, we somewhat insanely argue, as we pull a puck-like chunk of ice off the waterer whose heater isn’t keeping up.

Why do I do this?  The question rattles around in the empty spaces created by all of the cold.

Things break. Animals shiver.  Our faces get chapped by the frigid air, and our toes go just a little numb in our boots when we forget to put on two pairs of socks.

The ancients used to bring evergreens into their homes in the winter as an act of sympathetic magic.  (It’s where we get our Christmas trees, actually.)  It was a reminder that spring and summer would come again.    The greenery provided comfort against their stark, harsh world of cold and dark and white.   It was reminder of the renewal that was waiting for them just under the surface of the snow.

I get it.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I decorated my tree.  We chose a little beauty from my hay supplier’s tree lot.  It is on the smaller side, a cute little Fraser fir, but it is full, and well-branched, and lovely.  Everything I look for in a Christmas tree.   My hay guy gave it to me for free, insisting that I paid enough for hay throughout the year to merit a free Christmas tree, and it is standing in my sunroom smelling a little bit like heaven.

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John strung the lights, and I pulled out my collection of ornaments while we waited on the most recent blizzard.   He built a fire in the fireplace.  We opened a bottle of wine, and I took my yearly walk down memory lane, choosing ornaments from my collection that seemed especially meaningful.  I added a few this year.  I put a few in a donation box whose meaning no longer felt dear to me (several of them commemorating milestones with my ex husband).

We sipped wine and cuddled up with the cats for the rest of the evening, enjoying our little bit of magic with it’s glittering ornaments and fairy lights.  I ventured out in my pajamas and coveralls with a flashlight in hand as the sleet turned to snow to bring the horses in from the field.

As the ice stung my face, I briefly wondered why I feel so pulled to this place and this work.  Then the horses made their way into the barn, bits of snow clinging to their long eyelashes and against their manes and tails.  The ponies nickered from their stall, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t time for second dinner.  The llamas hummed softly from across the aisle, munching hay from the nets I had refilled earlier that day.

I made my way back to the house, back to my boyfriend, back to the dogs and cats I share my home with, back to the warm fire, and the tree that awaited me with it’s sympathetic magic, and I realized that the barn was full of magic of its own. The creatures there reminding me, in their own way, that we are all in this together.  That we are connected to one another and to the seasons as they come and go.  That the snow and the cold and the chill are both temporary and beautiful.

I settled into the couch next to John and sipped my glass of red wine.

It was quiet.  The lights on the tree glittered through and shone against the ornaments.  The fire crackled.  Renewal waits on the other side of this season, on the other side of the snow, and the cold will pass.  For now though, I will steel myself against the cold, enjoy the quiet moments, and try to pay attention to the magic.

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The ornaments on the tree.

This year, with all the chaos that is our lives, short a living room, and tight on funds, I thought I could go without a Christmas tree.  I figured, what’s one year without a tree in the long scheme of it?  But my inner elf could not be dissuaded.  Christmas, after all, has always been my favorite holiday.

As a young idealist, I had always assumed that the man I would marry would feel the same about Christmas as I do.  But Jeremiah’s childhood experiences were very different from mine.  For me, Christmas was candy canes and carols, huge family dinners and a late night drive from Grandma’s on Christmas Eve (once or twice I was sure I saw Santa…), presents and friends.  For him, Christmas was a reminder that his dad was deployed…again. It was a time of higher stress, a reminder of difficulties.  Later, as an adult working in the emergency services, the holidays showed him the worst of humanity.  And, even though I understand all of that, it is rough to be an elf married to Scrooge.

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(He literally says Bah Humbug when I first bring up Christmas.  He sent me the above photo by text earlier this year.)

So, you might say we’re a mixed marriage in that way.  All of this is simply to explain why I always end up decorating the tree by myself.

But for me, decorating a tree is about way more than putting shiny baubles on branches.  You see, elf that I am, I’ve been collecting my ornaments for more than ten years, and nearly every ornament on my tree has a story.

It all starts with an empty tree.

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We bought this one at the local market.  It’s small–our last house had vaulted ceilings; this one does not–and more than a little Charlie Brown-ish.  But that doesn’t matter.

You string the lights and garland.  The tree begins to take on the spirit of your Christmas trees past.

And then you add the heart.

The ornaments.

I’m not much for trinkets.  They create clutter and tend to lose their meaning in time.  (“Oh, yeah, we got that on vacation…now it sits on a shelf, and I have to dust it.”)  But Christmas ornaments?  They only come out once a year, and, for several weeks when winter is at its bleakest, they remind you of their story, first when you unpack them and carefully hang them on your tree, then when you walk past them each day, then again when you carefully pack them away.  I’ve had some people think that I’m just really into ornaments, but that’s not really true.  Even the most glorious ornament has no meaning to me if it doesn’t have a story.  But those that do have stories?  They are like old friends

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This one sits near the top of our tree.  My parents bought it for us for our first Christmas in our first house.  It has special meaning this year, the first Christmas in our new home.

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The front and back on one of my favorites, I bought this one while living in Salzburg, Austria.  The reverse is the cityscape of a place that will always feel like home.

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These three are from Jeremiah and my first vacation together.  (There’s also an ornament from the Kennedy Space Center from that trip.)

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I bought his one from the rescue that saved little Amelia before she came home with us.

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Our first Anniversary

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Of course, I am the daughter of a pilot, the wife of a pilot, and I work in aviation.  I believe my parents bought me this one the first year I worked for the family business.

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I couldn’t find an ornament I liked in Switzerland, so I made one from a trinket cowbell.  (MORE COWBELL!)

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I brought Santa and his gondola home from Venice.

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This little otter came home from the Shedd Aquarium, a just for the heck of it trip I took with Jeremiah while we were dating.

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I made this one from our wedding program.

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But this one, which I brought home from Vatican City, might be my favorite.

A surprise inside, lest we forget the reason for the season
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And there are so many more…

So I guess every year I will have a tree, and I will decorate it myself, if only to bring these old friends out of their boxes and let them shine for just a little while.