The season of “making magic” has passed for another year, and my feelings, like my holiday nuts, are mixed.
The winter holidays are a special time for those of us who brood. In the darkness of the year, nostalgia takes root. When the light disappears at 4 in the afternoon, it’s as though nature itself is telling you to dream your day away. Christmas lights are thick on the ground in the midwest, and no surprise. Winters in Detroit are long, gray, and grim. Better to light a six-foot Rudolph than curse the darkness. They appear the day after Halloween, a visual reminder that even as the days get colder, we can conjure up magic to shield us from despair.
My Christmases growing up were blessedly simple. We were a military family until my mid-teens, living far from our extended family. My experiences of rough-and-tumble Christmas in a crowd were limited to the couple of years we traveled from Northern Virginia to my dad’s hometown of Hugo, Minnesota, to celebrate with my Grandpa Joe, Grandma Connie, and the families of my dad’s half-dozen younger siblings. Otherwise, it was just my parents and the four of us kids. There were presents under the tree, Mannheim Steamroller on the hi-fi, and church on Christmas morning. My dad sang in the choir, we sang in the pews. It was not elaborate, but it was magic. I want that magic for my own kids.
What do I mean, when I talk about magic? First of all, I don’t mean the complex theater of low-stakes deception in service of the Santa Claus myth: no elves-on-shelves for us. I would love to convince you that I have some sort of virtuous reason to eschew it, but the bare facts are that I am a bad liar with very literal-minded children. It is not a fiction I can gracefully maintain.
(This proved a mild disappointment to my spouse, whose family engaged a whole system of accomplices to create the Christmas night illusion while the family was at midnight Mass. Not only did the neighbors fill the stockings and stack the gifts, but I have been assured they rigged up a contraption to decorate the yard with reindeer prints and sleigh tracks, a contraption that made good use of the frozen hooves left over from that year’s venison.)
For me, magic is what happens when the pleasure of something far transcends the effort it takes to produce it.
Christmas trees are a great example. We use a pre-lit, mid-price artificial Christmas tree. It takes no more than about forty-five minutes to set up and decorate, if we aren’t being fussy about it (although sometimes I like being fussy about it). Our tradition is to bring it out the day after Thanksgiving and keep it up until sometime after Epiphany and before Candlemas. That’s weeks and weeks of magic for a relatively small investment of effort.
I was reminded of the magic of our Christmas tree a few years ago. Ron was doing a digitizing job for an older woman who had forty-year-old home movies she hadn’t been able to view in years. He invited her into the studio–aka Ron’s office in the corner of our rumpus room–-to view the work in progress. That January afternoon, she brought her husband and his mother, who at 104 years old, was too frail to be left home alone.
I had never before hosted a centenarian in the most chaotic room of my house, so I dare say I fluttered a bit, getting her settled into the sagging couch in front of the tree to wait. Despite being surrounded by the detritus of my busy young family–stuffed animals, half-dressed Barbies, coloring books and Ron’s mountain of obscure technical equipment–she was silent serene, her eyes dreamy, falling on nothing. Her son assured me that she was well and comfortable, but suggested I light the Christmas tree to give her something to focus on.
Sure enough, the moment I lit the tree, her whole demeanor changed. “Why, that makes a world of difference!” she exclaimed, her voice clear and strong, delighted for one bright moment before she disappeared into memory again.
This holiday was a challenging one. A stomach virus hit every one of us the week prior, leaving me only three days to do the work of Christmas…wrapping presents, finalizing shopping, preparing food…I was overwhelmed, and doubted that the magic would exceed the struggle.
I was wrong. I enlisted the teenagers to stack the gifts after I wrapped them, decorating them with leftover ribbons I found in the basement. Magic.
I googled “easy holiday treats,” and the little girls and I made rum balls…with extra rum for mom’s batch. Magic.
My most artistic child arranged charcuterie boards for the holiday table. No one missed the giant baked ham. Magic.
Much is made of holiday magic, but really, magic is not limited to a certain time.
Sliding into a well-made bed at the end of the day is magic.
The alchemy of a scrambled egg, cooked in butter over low heat, is magic.
Hearing a song you haven’t heard since you were seventeen is magic.
Lighting a candle to brighten a dark day is magic.
There is magic in doing “small things with great love,” of course, but there is also magic in seeing that the great love is there even when you don’t feel it.
The days are cold, but getting lighter now. There is love in that, in the light that comes back when you need it most. That love gives me strength to make a bed, write a sentence, light a candle.
I am loved, and I love, and that’s the real magic.
Theresa Weiler is a writer, singer, speaker, seeker. She lives in the Detroit area with her husband and four children. If you would like to make a little magic for her family, throw a tip in her Venmo tip jar, @realtheresaweiler, or keep her company on Twitter @Real_Theresa or Instagram @realtheresaweiler.