My family will tell you that I'm not very traditional when it comes to Christmas decorating. Or maybe it's that I'm overly traditional: I'm not interested in the commercial "Christmas" we've come to know in North America since the advent of the Coca-Cola Santa.
I don't want garlands of artificial greenery with white icicle lights and tinsel. I don't have room for a Christmas tree, and I'm allergic to heavily-scented holiday candles.
I'm not a Scrooge. I just like to explore the sacred and pagan roots of this seasonal festival in my own way - and come up with decorations that have real meaning for me. Decorations that, more often than not, I've created myself.
Last Christmas - my first ever in an apartment all of my own - I settled on a potted rosemary bush and some small white paper snowflakes that I cut out one evening while listening to Christmas carols.
This year I've been so focused on some urgent projects that Christmas decorating almost didn't happen. I use the deep, eight-foot-long window ledge in front of my desk as a kind of seasonal altar, displaying random things - usually from nature - that appeal to me visually and symbolically.
When I returned to my apartment after house-sitting for most of the month of November, I put a simple wooden bowl and the shed skin of a snake on the ledge. The bowl symbolized the emptiness that I often feel at this time of year - as I wait to be filled with inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose in these dark days of December. The snake skin represented the new growth I desperately wanted to experience after searching unsuccessfully for employment for over three months.
Then one day while I was walking Jack the pug puppy, I glanced down at a four-foot length of branch that had been lying on the ground near my client's apartment building for several months. The branch was a favorite distraction of Jack's - he loved sticks, and often tried to pick this one up and "carry" it ("drag" is more like it) a few feet before the weight of the branch caused him to give up and move on to other, lighter conquests.
"That branch might make a nice decoration for my apartment," is what I thought to myself as Jack knawed on it for the thousandth time. I lifted it off the ground, and Jack was immediately delighted by this new activity. As I dragged the branch in one hand and Jack's leash in the other, we engaged in an impromptu game of "carrot on a stick" - only in Jack's case, no carrot was necessary. The stick alone was enough.
A couple of hours later when I finally carried the branch into my apartment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I had an empty clay pot left over from an amaryllis that a former client had given me last Christmas; the pot was cheerily decorated with finger paints, courtesy of the client's daughter. The leafless branch, firmly planted in an assortment of stones and pebbles inside the pot, looked like a vision of November: black, wind-swept fingers scratching a dull sky.
I've always been drawn to Tibetan prayer flags. I can see them in my mind's eye, tied in clusters along pilgrimage routes, the prayers of the faithful carried to heaven by the winds that set the flags dancing.
I have a lot of prayers right now. I want to tie my prayers to my tree, and imagine the wind coming to carry my prayers up to heaven (or wherever God might be, since God definitely seems to be busy somewhere else right now).
The flags didn't get created immediately; in the meantime, I tied bits of natural-coloured wool yarn to the branches. This afternoon I was given an unexpected gift of free time, and I finally prepared my prayers - 30 words or phrases printed out on plain white paper. I crumpled the paper after printing it, to soften and give movement to my "flags." Then I cut the flags apart, and stapled them to my prayer tree.
I'm praying for good health, and abundance, love and creativity. I'm also praying for a deep, romantic love - something that I am sorely missing in my life right now.
I'm praying for meaningful work and overflowing energy; I'm praying for discipline, rest and sustenance. I'm praying for wisdom, courage and hope.
In this cold season, I'm praying for warmth - of the body, and also of the heart. I'm praying for joy and play and dancing. I'm praying for inner peace.
But most of all - above everything else - I'm praying for enthusiasm. It's one of my favorite words, from the Greek theos, or God. It literally means to be filled with God.
(And I do yearn to be filled with God...)
I'm leaving for my home town in a few days, to spend time with family and friends. When I return to my apartment at the end of December, I already know what I'll replace the prayer tree with. I have a box of paperwhites ready and waiting to be planted in the amaryllis pot.
(I will see green things growing as the new year begins...)