Lonely, ill, exhausted and homesick, I stared out the grimy windows of the crowded bus at cold, dry pinnacles and deep gorges along the road that wound from Pakistan to Afghanistan, singing Christmas carols under my breath.
The only other person in the bus carrying Christmas traditions in his heart was my traveling companion from Poland. Romek was as sick, tired and homesick as I, and two months of impoverished student-style travel in India and Nepal had left us frustrated, sick and tired of each other. Christmas Eve on the Khyber Pass, surrounded by Islamic culture, replete with exotic adventures -- and we just wanted to go home.
My family's winter holiday season of music, secrets, feasting, family and festive chaos was cloaked in the traditions of Christmas. Trout for Christmas dinner, frozen since my grandparents' summer fishing trip. Sticky, satiny sweet roll dough -- stretched, slapped, kneaded by hand until your arms ached, its yeasty fragrance mingling with aromas of evergreen and cinnamon. Scissors, scraps, inks and ribbons everywhere -- detritus from making decorations and holiday cards. Miniature masterpieces in lithography, watercolor, block print and collage tumbling out of envelopes -- handmade cards from my parents' artist friends. Singing around the Christmas tree.
For thousands of years, people of the northern hemisphere have celebrated the return of light and life that comes with the winter solstice, the year's longest darkness. Those who built Newgrange in Ireland, 5,000 years ago, constructed it so that once a year -- at winter solstice -- the rising sun's light penetrates 79 feet down a dark passage, bringing light to the inner tomb chambers. The Romans' Saturnalia involved merriment, truce and gift exchange.
Hopis, in their winter solstice ceremony, sanctify seed corn to promote good crops, and give prayer objects to relatives and friends as a wish for their well-being. Hanukkah, the festival of lights, commemorates a miracle of abundance. At the core of the Christmas story are spiritual gifts of life and light, celebrated with gift exchange, festive lights and evergreens -- symbols of life in the depths of winter.
Christmas in Colorado Springs a century ago saw an unlikely giver of gifts: carpenter-turned-millionaire Winfield Scott Stratton. In a city whose population had doubled in one decade following the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek, the booming economy of the 1890s had wildly benefited some and left others far behind.
"Stratton was moved purely by compassion, and he stood exclusively for plain people," writes Marshal Sprague in Newport in the Rockies. "He made up his mind to relieve the bleakness of their existence and give them some taste of the happiness which he himself had never known. ... He did not want to uplift them with the blessing of culture by raising their standards of taste, personal hygiene and morality. He admired them and believed in them the way they were. For Christmas presents in 1899, he ... bought homes for half a dozen. ... He dumped $85,000 on the Salvation Army. Scores of families got a winter's load of coal from him. He sent a $50,000 check to Bob Womack, Cripple Creek's penniless discoverer..."
Whatever else was happening in prosperous Colorado Springs during the Christmas season 100 years ago, those winter solstice traditions of gifts, well-wishing, festivity and light warmed hearts and hearths all over town.
This year, each ornament I place on my living tree evokes a place, a friend, a memory. Beeswax hearts and tatted snowflakes crafted by Appalachian friends; a tiny loon commemorating a northern wilderness canoe trip; Tibetan Buddhist papier-mach masks to frighten away evil spirits; all these awaken, yawn, stretch and leap to glow on the tree when I open the ornament box. Wistfulness, too, and sorrow come out of the box -- longing, regrets, memories of lost loved ones. Traditions once shared can reopen fresh wounds. But over time, those holiday traditions turn out to be deep roots sending up rich new life.
That Christmas Eve in our cheap hotel room in Kabul, I decorated a stolen pine branch with the Tibetan masks I'd bought in Nepal. Romek weakly pulled from his pack a small, battered package he'd carried for months, halfway around the world. It contained a thin Christmas wafer. The tradition in Poland, he explained, was to break this bread together, embrace, and wish one another well. And we did.
Though we were too sick to eat anything but the crumbling wafer and tea, this simple, shared ritual, a good hug and our makeshift Christmas tree provided the soul nourishment that our hearts craved. In the holiday traditions we'd each brought from home, our travel-weary resentments evaporated like rising mists. In friendship we parted two days later -- Romek northward to catch the trans-Siberian train back to Poland; I, to share the driving of a Citren back to France. A few months later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Festivities are fleeting but powerful. The year's darkest time heralds the return of light. Poignant traditions can themselves be gifts.