This post seems the perfect follow up to Todd Johnson's essay on going home for the holidays. Robin Antalek, author of the forthcoming family novel The Summer We Fell Apart, talks about the holiday tradition that started when her daughters were quite small, and that was inspired by a beloved chidren's book. I just love this story and what it says about our childrens' capacity for love and giving. I think I shall be picking this book up this week to read with my son. The book links lead back to Robin's local bookstore, Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, NY, where you can see her read from The Summer We Fell Apart on February 11th.
The Animals’ Christmas
From the moment my daughters were born, it was important that their Christmases were filled with traditions big and small. Every year, we trek out to the farm and cut down a tree; I hide twenty-four little advent packages, one to open each morning; we make trays and trays of cookies from my grandmother’s stained and faded recipe cards and colossal gingerbread houses out of graham crackers, pretzels, candy and way too much frosting. We’ve caroled, attended numerous Nutcrackers, read Christmas books from the classic Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree to the contemporary Auntie Claus; we collected ornaments, some homemade, some purchased, and hung every one of them on the tree until the branches swept the floor from the weight. Each year, it seems we add to our list of Holiday must-haves so that the countdown to December 25th begins to look like a path strewn with crushed candy canes.
These traditions mattered, but nothing as much as when we stumbled upon the most glorious book: Night Tree by the beloved children’s author Eve Bunting. Night Tree tells the story of a family venturing out on Christmas Eve, bundled together in the cab of their father’s truck, as they head out into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree. Not for cutting down, but for decorating with popcorn and fruit for the animals of the forest to have for Christmas. The book has wonderful watercolor illustrations by Ted Rand that lend a dreamy, serene quality to the story that caused each of my daughters to linger long and hard over every page as they took in the quiet winter scenes.
Soon after that very first reading, my youngest daughter, a sensitive lover of all creatures, came home from preschool with a peanut butter smeared pinecone crusted in birdseed.
Her teacher had suggested she hang it in a backyard tree but my girl had something grander in mind. She wanted to fill a tree with these pinecone treats and not in our city backyard where our lab mutts would scare off any potential animals, but in the forest. She and her sister quickly set about collecting a box full of pinecones and making a list of the necessary ingredients: birdseed, carrots, cranberries, peanut butter and popcorn. With their father and me, they formed an assembly line at the kitchen table smearing and slathering the cones in peanut butter before rolling in birdseed and looping a twist of twine around the stem and packing them neatly in a big brown box.
On the edge of our town lies a vast State Park, so on Christmas Eve day, loaded down with our box of supplies, we left behind a stove bubbling with preparations for dinner, a house that needed to be cleaned for the company we were awaiting, a table that needed to be decorated, and set off in the car.
Once there, the girls climbed onto the sled, the box between them as we traversed the path through the woods made by snowmobiles and cross country skis until we found the perfect spot, down a short hill to a ravine where a stream threaded water over rocks and tree roots and where my husband pointed out the tracks of rabbits and deer who were drawn to the cool, clean water.
The girls quickly got busy hanging the pinecone treats in the bare low branches and sprinkling the remaining seed along the snowy paths down to the water. They made piles of cranberries, popcorn and carrots and then stood back and waited, I know, hoping that an animal would venture forth. It didn’t matter that their feet were frozen despite their thick boots or that they could no longer feel their fingers through their mittens. We drank the hot cocoa from the thermos and wished the animals a Merry Christmas before we convinced the girls to set off for home.
It has been many years since that very first animals’ Christmas. My daughters are teenagers now, one just starting college, and the other high school, and yet this simple gesture continues to bring us together. They still collect pinecones and make that assembly line with their father just like they have since they were four and seven. Whatever may be going on in their increasingly busy lives – lives, I know, that will very soon take them away from our home – they wouldn’t dream of forgoing our Christmas Eve tradition that started all because of one very special book.