For many years, in the months beyond December, all of our Christmas decorations endured their exile in a backyard shed, sealed in tight plastic bins to keep them safe until the holidays. But last January, my wife decided she no longer wanted our precious tree ornaments sharing company with the mice and must and damp of the place where we store lawn mowers and shovels, no matter how carefully they were packed away. Instead, we stowed our heirloom trimmings in the living room in a wooden chest that doubles as an end table.
Throughout this year, maybe on a searing summer day when the sun seemed hot enough to burn a hole in the roof, I’ve glanced at the chest near the couch and thought of Christmas waiting inside, like a coiled spring, poised to unleash its magic if I lifted the lid. But I kept the box closed, comforted enough by the thought that Christmas would eventually arrive on its own schedule, as it always does, just as the calendar is spent and the dull, gray world of winter needs good cheer the most.
It’s not my habit to think of Christmas during the summer, though children have been known to do it from time to time. In one of my favorite yuletide stories, “Home for Christmas,” Carson McCullers recounts her holidays in the small-town Georgia of the 1920s. Perhaps from boredom, since there was no TV or computer screen back then to glaze her eyes, McCullers would sometimes pass the hot months by daydreaming of December. It’s why her yuletide memories were grounded not only in sleet and frost, but tropical heat.
“Sometimes in August, weary of the vacant, broiling afternoon, my younger brother and sister and I would gather in the dense shade under the oak tree in the back yard and talk of Christmas and sing carols,” she tells readers. “I was experiencing the first wonder about the mystery of Time. Here I was, on this August afternoon … in the burnt, jaded yard, sick and tired of all our summer ways … How could it be that I was I and now was now when in four months it would be Christmas, wintertime, cold weather, twilight and the glory of the Christmas tree?”
McCullers, evoking the vision of childhood, calls the months between Christmases an “eternity,” which they can surely seem to a girl or boy. With age, though, time seems to shrink. For me, the span between Christmases now feels more like a footbridge than a great crossing.
Or so I thought this month as I finally lifted the lid that’s been closed tight in our living room since last winter. All the familiar treasures lay inside — the shiny things we carry from Christmas to Christmas as a way for the years to shake hands with each other, and remind us of what doesn’t change.