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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Year of Wonky Christmas Traditions

(printable version: www.zidao.com/tradition1.doc)
Traditions Lost


A boy in Scotland

Lindsay MacGregor grew up in a tall thin house with windows that started out rectangular but that didn’t stay that way, and with walls that were regularly painted white, quickly washed to an ashy color by the sea air and storms. The house was in Scotland where Lindsay was a boy, tall and reedy like his house, and equally unable to stay still.

It was in this house, where little fires burned steadily in winter, and his father’s pipe left a blue halo in the front room, that Lindsay lived through several Christmases of tradition and good cheer. His mother, short and inclined to roundness, loved the season. She baked wee mince pies and tied fir branches from her cousin’s giant trees to the front door. She played Christmas songs over and over, first on the piano and once they had machines to keep the music alive all day, she played carols that way. Every year she added small ornaments to the tree and Lindsay would wake up the week before Christmas to see yet more decorations sitting, hanging, dangling or perched in every spare space in the house.

Of men and Christmas spice

Lindsay tolerated this, as did his father, assuming it was a womanly thing. He disliked having his own reveries interrupted every December to drag down from the minuscule room at the top of the house the boxes that held all these objects. Once, he called them clutter. His mother, who had an enormous dislike for dust and clutter, stopped and stared at him. She quietly threatened not to make a Christmas pudding that year.


Lindsay, age 22

Lindsay never said another word against what he privately called the Christmas hoopla. Some years later he did the expected thing and married Leslie, who resembled his mother in her short roundness and dislike for clutter and dust but love of All Things Christmasy.

Never abuse a Christmas roll

One year he opened his mouth to complain about the number of boxes that had to be carried, always by him, but as he saw his wife studying her long-dead grandmother’s recipe for Christmas rolls, he closed his mouth. These were soft and white and always nicely risen, in the form of the yuletide wreathes that hung on their door and that got in his way at the supermarket entrance. The rolls were lightly covered in white icing, very thin like the edges of the icy pond nearby that wasn’t quite frozen over. Small bits of candied fruits would be scattered over the icing.

Time wore on, and as a museum curator, he was noticed time’s changes more than most people, although he had a tendency to catalogue them. His father’s pipe was buried with his father and his mother, after the shock of the first year, carried on much as before, for another 23 years. One morning she complained of a backache and two hours later, she died. Lindsay, always fond of his mother, was grateful that she lived to an old age with her wits about her, and that she had not suffered long. Ten years later Leslie died after a brief and not particularly painful illness. Lindsay was sorry that she died relatively young, but long lives had always been on his side of the family, not hers, so he was not in the end surprised.

Travelling traditions

It was shortly after Leslie died, and their children moved far away, one to Africa and one to Asia, that Lindsay surprised himself by applying for a job in Lausanne, Switzerland, at one of the many small museums in that city. He was 60, and certain they would not reply, but they offered him the job and in November he found himself walking on the shores of Lake Geneva, marvelling at his new life.


He had a small apartment, a job with pleasant people and he was learning to speak modern French, as opposed to the 18th and 19th century language he had used as a curator of fine old art. Children in particular were wide-eyed at his accent and the words he used, while grandmothers wheeling strollers would clap their hands in good cheer and say “My grandmother used to speak like that, and now no one does!”

An eccentric in Switzerland

Lindsay began to catalogue himself as a slightly eccentric but pleasant man who was moving into old age. He grew a beard, but like his spare frame, it was straight and slim. Looking at the spires of the cathedral in Lausanne one day, it occurred to him that God had probably looked at one of Lindsay’s ancestors, and then moved the hand of the architect. But Lindsay did not believe in God so such moments of fancy were rare, and made him laugh at himself. This reminded him of his mother, who had exhorted him during his youth to laugh at himself at least once a day, “just to keep things right in the world.”

This year the museum’s governors had asked if anyone would be willing to work over the holidays, to offer tourists in Lausanne more to do – not everyone wanted to go skiing in Switzerland for Christmas. Lindsay had broken the silence at the meeting by saying yes. His children were far away and he had no wish to travel during the holiday madness. He would see them soon enough. He kept one more reason to himself: this year, for the first time in his life, he was going to be a free man, and ignore the Christmas hoopla.

Lausanne and the Christmas markets

December 24 arrived, and as Lindsay rode the bus through the shopping areas, the crowded streets of the quartier Saint-Francois, the brightly colored windows of the boutiques on the Rue du Bourg and the food stalls in front of them – the last marché before Christmas – he let himself enjoy the sight, as he would a landscape by Ferdinand Hodler. He had learned as a young curator to admire the Swiss painter’s later work, which focused on symmetry in nature, and one of the pleasures that Lindsay now occasionally allowed himself was train trips to Zurich and Basel to see work by the painter. His favourite had become
Burgäschisee (bei Langenthal), painted in 1902.

A world of Christmas cards

Lindsay’s own small museum had one particular collection that was the source of much recent discussion. No one knew quite what to do with it. A very wealthy donor, the wife of an international tea merchant in Geneva, had left them earlier in the year her collection of Christmas cards. She was not Christian and had apparently never sent a card for the season, but she had, in her world travels, collected cards, and she had added to these the massive number of cards that she and her family, as well as the family business, had received. Her death, said one of the daughters when explaining the donation to Lindsay, had come at a good time: her mother had been shocked at the first e-mail card she received two years earlier.

“She would never have been able to understand a world where people no longer sent cards,” said the young woman solemnly.
“Do you send cards?” he asked her, his head bowed over the list she had handed him, trying to hide his amazement. How could one person accumulate, even in an entire lifetime, 4 million cards?
“Oh yes!” she replied, “SMS is not at all the same!”
Lindsay feared to ask what that was: she was a beautiful young woman, a fact to which he was not indifferent, and at that moment he preferred to play the invisible curator rather than the aging eccentric.

The cards had arrived by armoured truck in early November. Storage was not an immediate problem but the museum had been unable to work out what to do with the cards. There were simply too many of them.

Singing his favourite carols

Lindsay arrived at the charmingly discreet building with its dark purple shutters, in the heights of Lausanne. He unlocked the door, spent a quiet day with few visitors, and tidied many loose ends in the bookkeeping and the planning for next year. The afternoon drew to a close, dusk turned the sky outside the same color as the shutters, which he began to pull closed. He could hear carols, tinned music that did not carry well, from a house or maybe a shop further down the street. He hummed the tune and began to add the words.

He pulled in another shutter, latched it, and tried the tune again. The words would not come. He frowned and checked the doors. Locked, all of them.

Lindsay had little patience with friends who complained that their memories were fading, with age. He himself had actively kept his memory limber, the way others kept their muscles in shape, and he had no intention of giving way to dottiness in his old age.

“Hark the herald, angels sing, hear him now the newborn king…”

No, that was not right. He tried again.

“Glory be the yuletide ring.”

Definitely not right, and where on earth had that come from?

“Peace on earth and merchants mild.”

This was intolerable.

Lindsay sat down hard, on an old leather chair with arms. It was uncomfortable and he wondered who had bought it. Perhaps it was a donation. He recalled his father’s soft, expansive armchair, with the scratchy surface that his father said kept him from falling asleep in the chair (but, Lindsay smiled to remember, he was often found snoring there, pipe beside him). The eccentric curator allowed himself a rare moment of nostalgia: he could picture his mother hanging her Christmas wreath over the front door. She then put one on a small table in front of the fireplace.

No, that was not quite right. The other wreath had surely been on the table. He could remember lighting the Advent candles, one a week before Christmas, and that had been at the dining room table. Or had it been on the small table near the door?

The museum’s Christmas cards

Panic, an emotion virtually unknown to Lindsay, began to take hold. In all the years of his childhood his mother had never varied the Christmas traditions. The food, the songs, the decoration, hearty wishes, the Boxing Day gifts for friends and neighbors, the cards,: all were as reliable as the sun and moon rising.

Lindsay ran through the rooms whose displays he knew better than his own children, to the room far at the back of the old house converted to museum, where boxes and boxes of Christmas cards sat silently.

“Silent night, holy night, all is well, all is bright.”

No. Surely it was “old is the well, all is bright” and he could remember a card someone sent when he was a wee lad, with a picture of a pussycat peering down a well, which had a light shining up from it. He stopped in his tracks. That could not have been a Christmas card, not with that image, surely.


art: J. Wilton
Lindsay tore at one box, then another and another until cards tumbled onto the floor in crazy patterns, ignoring all his years of training in the care and attention of fine old objects and art.

He tripped over a pile and found himself stretched out on the floor. It is Christmas Eve, he told himself. And I have lost the traditions of Christmas. Tears welled.

Through them he spotted a bright little bird, on a red paper carpet. It looked like it was singing.

Tomorrow: traditions found.

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