Reflections: Yule 2021
It’s hard to believe 2022 is knocking on the door. 2021 was a rough one, I’m not sorry to see it go, but somehow, the thought of 2022 doesn’t bring much comfort. I lost two dear feline companions this year, Cleo and Charcoal, and my own health has been precarious at times. I’ve had to bring in more help for the yard, and moving masses of heavy boxes of decorations up from the basement, but the masterplan for the garden proceeds on schedule, and the seasons continue to unfold inside just as they have always done, even if climate change makes the outside landscape a less reliable predicter of the times.
On that theme, although it was a near thing, I did manage to complete the Yule decorations by my self-imposed deadline of December 6th, which is St Nicholas Day. I was aided in that endeavor by the fact that the complicated and sprawling Victorian Village was not on the agenda this year, being something I attempt only biannually. That’s a two-day job in itself, and even without that, there’s some mighty high stepping that needs to occur post-Thanksgiving, to meet my goal. But it’s not all work and drudgery – it’s always a joy to release treasured seasonal items from their cardboard confinement, to be reunited with old and faithful friends, and introduce them to the newcomers.
Retail has been unreliable this year, as a source of new holiday tchotchke, due to the ongoing pandemic and supply chain issues, but I rediscovered the joys of the Thrift Store, just in time to score a dozen and a half Santas, some vintage, but all out of production and unavailable elsewhere. Which isn’t to say there weren’t retail purchases as well, but the pickin’s were slim at best.
I did find two new Santa cookie jars to add to that collection, which is now some eight pieces strong (plus a solitary reindeer cookie jar who sits with them by default, and five snowman jars that reside elsewhere). I really didn’t think I could fit any more on the level of the hutch where they’re displayed, but a judicious re-siting of the Santa pitcher gave just enough space to cram them in.
Artificial trees were another theme of 2021’s acquisitions – I bought four more 18” white trees at the Dollar Store (for a total of 12), found a brace of 3-foot green trees at another low-end retailer for just two bucks each, and raided 5 Below for three 4-foot white beauties. All this tree-buying led to some tree-trimming, a thing I haven’t done since taking in my cat Ashes and her brood in 2007. At age 16, Ashes has slowed down a bit, and doesn’t find tree-climbing as enticing a pastime as she once did (though she still enjoys nibbling on fresh pine boughs if they’re conveniently placed, no matter how loudly daddy yells at her to stop).
She also doesn’t jump up as high, and hasn’t yet attempted to reach the top of the dining room table, so I decided to risk it and plant one of the green trees at its center, then dragged out a box of carefully preserved glass ornaments that hasn’t seen the light of day in a decade and a half. There was a lot to choose from; the old tree was a 5-foot tabletop model and required more than twice the ornaments the new 3-footer would. I became lost down memory lane, entranced by baubles I barely recognized after their long hiatus.
Eventually I chose a natural theme, with a metallic color scheme, and so selected strands of silver and gold star garlands to ring the new tree, studded with pinecone ornaments in various shapes and sizes, and a shooting star ornament in silver, blue and gold as the topper. This paired well with a couple sets of diminutive clear plastic pinecone lights, battery-operated, with every third light blinking. I had used two larger white Santa figures on that table last year, and this year had acquired two more of a similar size (about a foot tall), both pairs trimmed with gold accents, so these now stand at the four cardinal points around the base of the tree. I think the set piece is small enough to still accommodate five guests for my Yule dinner, assuming I serve buffet style from the kitchen counter, but the proof of that will be in the (plum) pudding!
I continued my nostalgia tour with the set-up of the family nativity. As many of you know, I am not Christian, though I was raised as Nazarene, a fundamentalist Protestant sect, and I’ve been very conflicted about what to do with the nativity since I inherited it from my father two years ago, when he passed. It didn’t seem right, as even a “lapsed pagan” (as I now identify myself), to display it prominently, but it holds many childhood memories, and donating or otherwise disposing of it didn’t feel right either.
The core of the set was purchased by my maternal grandparents for their first Christmas together in 1928, so the nativity goes back almost a century. My mother remembers it as a child, and took it with her when she married in 1956; it has always formed a central focus of our Christmas celebration, at first in the place of honor beneath the tree, and later (when cutting and trimming a fresh tree was no longer on my mother’s priority list) on the TV console, paired with a lighted ceramic tree made by my aunt.
The figures appear to be crafted of some form of wood pulp with papier mache overlay, and have seen their share of tragedy, with broken limbs on the camels and sheep, and scarred visages of the Wise Men. The set is housed in a pressed woodchip stable, with straw accents embedded, and there is a small doll’s house-sized wooden manger. When I was about ten, I decided the baby Jesus needed something a bit more regal to lie upon than bare wood, and added a small clump of golden tinsel garland, stolen from that bedecking the tree, which remains his bedding to this day.
Strangely, while the set included an annunciating angel, there were no shepherds to hear the pronouncement of Joy to the World. We rectified this defect in the mid-‘70s, when my mother and I purchased a seated shepherd of a similar scale and coordinating design at the local Sears, along with an additional member of his flock, and the donkey Mary and Joseph rode into Bethlehem. Even these are antiques now, at almost fifty years old.
I didn’t want to display this in the common rooms where I normally tour guests; besides the religious disconnect, there really isn’t space, as chockful as it is of Santas and snowmen. So I laid out the set in my bedroom on an antique lace doily that had graced my mother’s bureau, and added the old ceramic tree to one side. I used a white wooden Moravian star (a German cultural emblem which remains popular in this region of the country, originally populated by settlers of the Moravian faith in the 1700s) with 14 points (the more traditional version has 26) to top the stable. The star I had bought in my early 20s, one of the first Christmas-related items I acquired, rather than inherited.
It looked nice, and brought up pleasant memories, but it didn’t feel complete. A few days later, I was unpacking a box labelled “pencil figure Santas”, when I recalled that in the bottom of that box were other pencil figures, of angels. I had bought these (and the Santas) at the Dollar Store in the ‘90s, but only used them a few years, yet here they remained, patiently awaiting their return to the stage.
There were four of them, two singers and two instrumentalists, one with harp and one with trumpet. One had broken its wing, but cleanly, and a bit of white glue quickly remedied that. They were of the right scale to match the other nativity pieces, and had an appropriate nostalgic design – somewhat Baroque, with parchment-yellowed faces and rich robes of crimson, burgundy, cream and emerald. They now form a backup choir to the Annunciator, and I deem the set complete.
Of course this was just preamble to the real work, of unpacking and placing upwards of a thousand Santas, snowmen, woodland creatures, trees and cardinals. My obsessive collecting of Santas has required me to separate them into subsets, for clarity of viewing, if nothing else. So there are Santas categorized as red, burgundy, white (which includes grey and silver), green and brown. The red Santas are further subdivided by task – Santas in sleighs or riding reindeer; Santas going down the chimney; Santas at the fireplace mantle; and Santas with lists – and by composition, aspect or accoutrements – pencil figure Santas, fabric Santas, Santas with trees, Santas carrying wreaths.
Over the years I’ve streamlined this process by strategic packing and storage of boxes in groups, with like packed with like, to facilitate a quick and easy transition of the décor from autumn to winter, allowing me to cut down this daunting task into chewable bite-size pieces. But it’s still a good week’s-worth of effort, morning, noon and night.
There were a few hiccups, like not finding the de rigueur glittered snow batting that lines the shelves before the figures are displayed. By some happy chance, I had just purchased five new bags of it, in anticipation of replacing some that was becoming tattered, so I had a substitute ready to hand. And naturally, as soon as that task was completed, the box containing the original batting resurfaced, having been in plain view but unnoticed the entire time. (Hey – you try to make sense of 117 boxes of Christmas decorations, all stacked in your living space at once!)
But over all, the shelf decorating went smoothly, and I was able to move on to snowflakes and icicles, those staples of wintry decor. Garlands of these line the bookcases and archways, with solitary snowflakes hung on walls and doors, creating a snowy backdrop that sets off the collection, and remains on view until March. Lastly, as most perishable, come the bouquets of natural elements. I’m very pleased to be able to supply much of this greenery myself, even if some varieties can provide only enough for accents. With the exception of one small bunch of pine, all the evergreens on display came from my own garden.
A large bouquet adorns the front porch, along with one of the new four-foot white trees, untrimmed. A medium bouquet rests on a display table in the living room, but needs to be whisked to the safety of the top of the refrigerator nightly, so Miss Ashes doesn’t have her yuletide midnight snack. A raft of mixed greens crowns the curtain valance at the dining room window, hung with white glass icicles and intricate paper snowflakes.
But it’s the small bouquet in the office which I enjoy the most. Accompanied by a pair of Santas and a chubby ceramic snowman, this contains sprigs of every harvestable evergreen in the garden: Norway spruce, berried green holly, yellow-green false cyprus, blue-green boxwood, variegated green-and-white euonymus, variegated boxwood, and berried sprigs of cotoneaster, with some ruby-brown foliage still adhering. The winterberry and beautyberry are, alas! still too small to harvest; perhaps next year.
A few days before the project was completed, I was gifted with a light snowfall, just enough to paint the garden in white, followed by a rosy-purple sunrise so spectacular as to take one’s breath away. I doubt if last year’s blizzard bonanza of snowpack will be repeated (the year before we had no measurable snowfalls at all), but as long as I have a few days of whiteout here and there, and brightly tinted dusks and dawns, I’ll be content.
Blessed Yule, Merry Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year to all!
NOTE: The videos accompanying this post were filmed by my cousin in 2020, but are approximately the same as this year
6 comments, add yours.
Thank you for sharing! It’s all a mind boggling delight!
So beautiful!!! Always warms my heart with your writing and photos. What a lovley collection!
Thank you so much for this post. It quite cheered me up.
Thoroughly enjoyed this, Alex! Loved the new tree with the pine cone ornaments guarded by the four white Santas! And all the animals peeking out from your White Yule collection! Thanks for spreading the Christmas joy every year by sharing your incredible array of decorations! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and Ashes, and wishing you good health in 2022!
Thank you so much. All your seasonal displays inside and out do a soul good.
robert Martin denk
Alex, so far, I’ve read about the thrift stores, and then just scrolled, as I knew I had many rooms to examine. The video was a delight, as well. But where do you keep all your stuff? The basement must be like a warehouse! Anyway, I admire your energy.