It’s tradition in my family (or was) to wait til Christmas Eve to decorate the tree. If my mother had had her way, I suspect she would have put off the pagan ritual til the feast of the Epiphany. That’s when the Wise Men (the first to ruin Christmas?) brought their gifts. But every year, even in her house, Christmas crept closer. Advent had its wreath. Ceramic Santas and holiday ashtrays would start showing up on end tables. Electric candles would appear on window ledges softening the edges of the living room.
I, too, have started signaling the season. As always I’ve hung three empty stockings and attached a motley assortment of bells to the inside of our door. Every time the door opens and closes, the bells will remind me that there are still cookies to bake and presents to puzzle over: what would (fill-in-the-blank) really like this year? (This is the kind of thinking I really want to do right now, not the concentrated attention that my (other) writing projects are demanding.)
This year, I had a small epiphany of my own, one that came without ‘wise men’ in sight. (This is early December and according to legend, they’ve only just set out from the East.) As I retied the bells to the door yesterday, it occurred to me that instead of serving as a daily reminder of holiday rituals yet to be observed (e.g., the aforesaid cookie baking), those globes of sound change our space in a fundamental way, changed me for a moment. The small act of putting them up is an act of faith that there can be another state of being beyond the ordinary, and in this life, not in the next. The salient word being ‘up.’
Much has been written about the temporary freedom (the shift in said state of being) allowed during festivals and carnivals. Much more has been written about the gradual degradation of their sacred natures by rampant consumption. But I have no faith in the story that the holidays were once pure, unsullied by advertising and Hollywood. The idea that that they have degenerated over time is too neat, too linear. I’m pretty sure that even the ancients had those who capitalized on every party they could, raising the price of wine when the gods demanded a toast or upping the cost of calves to be sacrificed on special occasions.
I do, however, suspect that our expressions of faith in the possibility of altered (better) states have become more private. Even so I find it a minor miracle that something so seemingly trivial – affixing bells to a door – caused such a profound interruption. I realized that Christmas isn’t an atmosphere imposed but one awakened, and that the everyday can be pierced just by the sound of a bell. That said, it isn’t lost on me that atmospheres are fragile, mutable things. Just like faith.