As I look out from the office window with the snow gently falling over the white fields and woods on the days counting down to Christmas, I am reminded how lucky we are to be here in Maine at this magic time of year. Christmas for me is a nostalgic time, combining the celebration of the birth of Christ with singing Christmas carols, cutting the Christmas tree, family reunions and giving to others, parties with good friends and neighbors, and coming into a warm kitchen full of the smell of holiday cooking.
Maine has a holiday spirit and beauty all its own where the splendor of a snowy white Christmas regularly happens year after year. We have had some very fine Christmases in places we've lived and traveled to around the country and the world, but there truly is no place like home in Maine for the holidays. The holiday customs we've picked up from these other places are now part of our Maine Christmas, making it even more special here at home.
Penny and I spent Christmas in Vienna last year with friends and enjoyed the festive mood and lights of an old-world Christmas. We celebrated Christmas Eve at the St Stephan Cathedral holy night service. The huge organ and decorations were magnificent, and there was a full choir singing traditional German and Austrian Christmas carols. The Christmas message was uplifting for the crowd that filled every space in the Cathedral.
Worshiping in our little Sebago church is certainly more humble than St Stephans, but is just as meaningful. As wonderful as Christmas in Vienna was, the warmth of worshiping together with old friends and neighbors at home is even more special. It is always magic to join with neighbors and friends to hear again the story of Christmas and sing the old familiar carols at our hometown Christmas Eve service and leave church with the snow crunching underfoot and the stars twinkling overhead.
The Christmas tree is an important part of our Maine tradition. As Advent begins we traditionally make a trip to our woodlot to cut a tall balsam fir for our Christmas tree and gather boughs for festive decorations around the farmhouse. We often combine the outing with the Christmas concert of the Meetinghouse Singers at the South Effingham Church, followed by carol singing and lighting the tree in Taylor City there.
The outing to get the tree always reminds me of a Christmas I spent once in Saigon in the service. There was a market on Tu Do Street where I bought a 10-foot pine, the closest thing to a traditional Christmas tree I could find. It was too big to fit in one pedicab, so I hired two to take me back to my apartment near the Central Market - one for me and another for the tree. Once there I decorated the tree with silver foil stars from France and glass beads from China that I'd bought at the market. As festive as it was, however, it was still no substitute for being home at Christmas, as probably every serviceman and woman who is overseas knows all too well.
Decorating the Christmas tree is a whole nostalgia trip in itself, with ornaments we've had in the family for years. The last additions to our tree are always the wax candles. When we lived in Germany, I fell in love with the use of real candles. They add a special dimension to the tree. When you light the candles and turn out the lights in the room, the candle flames dance and reflect off the glass ornaments in a way that is magic.
It was a special winter camping trip with my Boy Scout Troop and our brother troop of German Pfadfinder when I was introduced to candles on the Christmas tree. After supper we hiked together back into the dark and snowy woods toward a bright glow. One of the German Scout leaders had clipped dozens of candles on a small fir tree, and we gathered around it to read the Christmas story and sing Silent Night in German. It was a simple but moving experience that I will never forget.
When we got back to our tents and the Scouts had all turned in, the German leaders introduced me to Glühwein, or spiced mulled wine. They made it in a brass pot hanging over a campfire, and we shared it that cold, dark snowy night. It has become a Christmas staple at our house along with the candles on the tree.
Christmas in Maine is always a special time when we have family gatherings at our old farmhouse in Sebago. With the kids and grandkids scattered around the country, it is often hard for all of us to get together at the same time. I remember fondly the year that everyone made it home for Christmas and there were 10 of us and 11 dogs. Every room was full and the Christmas dinner was truly a groaning board. I made a gallon or two of Glühwein. There was a huge pile of presents under the tree. We had a fine holiday to remember for years.
This year the kids and grandkids will not be back to visit from their homes "away", so Penny and I will be having Christmas by ourselves. And it will still be a wonderful Christmas because we are in Maine. We've cut our tree and decorated it with the familiar ornaments. We've celebrated with our other family here, and with parties with friends and neighbors. We'll celebrate the real meaning of Christmas with carols at our neighborhood church, and remember once again why Christmas in Maine is so special.
And I'll make a pot of Glühwein and we'll light the candles on our tree, watching their reflected light as we reflect on all our blessings. Those of us who are fortunate to live in Maine and enjoy its holiday spirit and beauty with our family and friends are truly lucky. Merry Christmas!
Last updated December 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on December 30, 2004 under the title "Remembering Christmases Past".