Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Northern California

Entry for 25 December 2009:

After another very early start from Toledo, we land in San Francisco about 10.30am on Christmas Eve day. The weather is gorgeous and there is even more daylight (9 hrs 40 min) than in Ohio. It is a secret known only to natives that December is typically the nicest month in San Francisco. As we drive across the San Mateo Bridge, the sun is shining, the air clear, and we can see Mount Diablo. Black shore birds rest in the cement bases of the electricity pylons, waiting out high tide, frozen into odd positions; Kenneth and Diane are convinced that they are statues.

In Pleasanton, the weather is so lovely that Kenneth and I decide to go out for a run. It’s almost 60 degrees F (+15 C), with a light breeze. It feels like summer in Scotland!

Kenneth, Diane, her mom Gladys, and I have a pleasant, low-key Christmas Eve dinner of lasagna and salad. I put together a Christmas playlist… and discover my dad’s huge treasure of Christmas music of all different sorts. I end up with a playlist of almost 1000 songs, more than enough to keep us going into next year. We go to the 9pm service at Gladys’ Methodist church, sing Christmas carols, try to stay awake when the jet lag hits us. Afterwards we go home and finish wrapping Christmas presents. When Marjorie and Kris finally show up sometime after midnight, we are sound asleep.

On Christmas morning, there is the usual ritual of handing out and opening presents, followed by breakfast, with special breads. Before and afterwards, we hang around: Kenneth plays with his new Japanese Pokemon game. This is my year for music, so I get busy transferring my new CDs into iTunes, plus Kenneth’s “dinner playlist” of videogame music that he wants me to have so that I can play music he likes during dinner.

Friends of Gladys and Marjorie and Kris arrive about 2pm for a variation on a classic American Christmas dinner: The center of the meal is a large platter of ham and turkey, with side dishes of strawberry-spinach salad, a big bowl of asparagus buttered and sprinkled with bits of bacon, sweet potato and pineapple casserole, rolls. Afterwards there is apple pie with ice cream and Christmas cookies over tea/coffee. When the guests leave about 7pm, it feels like the middle of the night, and people more or less collapse.

I think about these rituals of the season, repeated in various permutations and combinations, year after year: The pressure of the preparations leading to a series of moments, followed by… not exactly a let down, but at least a kind of exhaustion, of wanting to simply kick back and relax, unwind, be unproductive, read that new graphic novel or simply to escape from Ordinary Time. It is a kind of Between Time, like the Romans marking an intercalendary period at this time of year. The different layers of the holiday overlap and intertwine: the spiritual/mythic woven together with the domestic/practical and the personal/emotional, as we do our tasks, remembering previous Christmases or being brought up short by expectations or disappointments. Archetypes play with and against household tasks, while old patterns and issues re-emerge. When I was a kid, my dad was often ill at Christmas, on a couple of occasions gravely so. As a result, Christmas still feels like a risky time, a time of danger, a season of light and dark, joy and sorrow, mixed together. The sun shining brightly, candles burning in the midst of the green Advent wreath, in the dark time of the year.

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