A few days ago the first snow of the season fell, and the flakes once delicate and perfect in descent are now joined in tight, durable bonds of ice over sidewalks and driveways of our town. Late fall in New England is like that, a beautiful mess, glorious and treacherous. Behold the leaves of crimson against the azure sky, the crystals of silver against the grey; then acquaint yourself with the cold, hard fact of icy concrete as it is introduced involuntarily and far too rapidly to your backside. It’s an invitation for reflection on control: that the things over which we can exert it are few—not the seasons, not the firmness of concrete, and certainly not when or whether homeowners shovel sidewalks or neighbors rake their yards.
It was only last week that I put my rake away for the season. I spent the last few hours before darkness on Sunday clearing the yard. Every so often I paused to admire the splendid job I was doing. During those moments of self-congratulation I looked up at the limbs of the oak trees overhead and at the full complement of leaves to which they clung, the endurance of their grip having outlasted by two weeks all other species of tree within sight. No doubt every individual in every New England town holding a rake at that hour, having diligently cleared his property, and with forty bags of stubborn oak leaves overhead had the same uncharitable thought: hope they blow onto my neighbor’s yard.
That evening as I warmed myself with a cup of tea I rehearsed the hex I intended to put upon those leaves. Then the wind picked up and rustled the leaves that remained in the trees and on neighbors’ yards. Harder it blew from the north as leaves swirled and danced in the street and, at last, were torn free from the oaks. I stepped onto the porch to watch the arctic blasts blow them sideways, sometimes upwards, but sure enough far from my yard. My elation was brief; those blasts also carried every other negligently un-raked leaf in the neighborhood up my driveway and deposited them in my yard.
Just then it began to precipitate, which is a completely inadequate characterization. If a drop of rain is a cloud’s tear then I must have been standing in firmament’s handkerchief. The heavens cleared its sinus cavities upon our town that night, and icy globs defying meteorological description coated every surface. By daybreak the town was encrusted with a slippery shellac of grey. The neighborhood’s leaves were firmly epoxied where they had come to rest, assuring they would remain on my property until spring.
Indeed we have entered the season of darkness and ice and of dry skin and practical shoes. Its arrival coincides with the inexorable approach of the Judeo-Christian/Pagan festivals of distraction and consumption, Hanukkah and Christmas, along with the rights, privileges, obligations, latkes, fish sauce, cookies, and traffic jams pertaining thereto. Elements of both traditions are observed in our home. Our toddler is a believer in anything associated with presents and food so latkes are consumed, the tree is decorated, and Santa is expected. To her, Hanukkah is mostly a festival of pyrotechnic, small integer mathematics. Each night we observe the ritual of counting candles, adding one to the sum of the previous night’s, subtracting the quantity dropped on the floor, and speculating about the total that might be required in one or two nights hence. Then we set them ablaze and watch them extinguish in smoky wisps and wonder where the candles went. That they went into the air was ruled improbable by the toddler judge who thought they descended into the menorah, as I must admit they appeared to do.
There is much that is improbable about these holidays. Once upon a time one day’s worth of oil fueled lights for eight and we mark the occasion by burning candles for eight days. Fair enough. Once upon a much later time the son of God was delivered by a virgin in a heap of hay with goat as midwife and donkey as videographer and we mark that occasion with a lighted tree and a late night visit by a bearded fat man in red who arrives in a flying deer-powered sleigh. Huh?
Perhaps in each case there simply had been some lapse in accounting or memory. But every so often the masses need a miracle and the magi need to make a distribution of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Could it be that Judas Maccabeus and Mary each perceived the need of the season and took a risk? Obfuscating about oil reserves and a pre-marital tryst would have been dangerous moves in those days, but it all paid off for them. Their legacies would not be what they are had they been more forthcoming about quantities of fuel and intimate encounters in late March.
Whether their origins are viewed as fantasy or miracle, the holidays return with regularity as unstoppable as December snow. The ancients could no more control the storms or their neighbors as can we, but they were wise to heed their spirit and to distract themselves and their children from winter’s doldrums and difficulties. To a child, magical tales with tangible props make for a glorious month. As a child’s spirit goes so do those of her parents. Her wonder at the disappearing candles and the stealth of Santa is infectious. Seeing the world through her eyes we welcome the beautiful mess of the season and its holidays, embrace the air’s chill and the ice underfoot, and forgive our neighbors’ neglect of shovel and rake. We gather with our children and parents, brothers and sisters, tell tales, dance to music, offer gifts, hang baubles, give light, hope for peace, and find our joy. The hearth warms, the cookies bake, and the jeering leaves and icy slop of late fall are forgotten.