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Snow falling in Norridgewock (Maine), December 2011.

Yesterday I wrote about the end-of-year pressures the holiday season creates in our culture — compulsive happiness, travel and social stress, gift-giving dilemmas and demands — and some of the opting out we’re doing this year. But I’m not a total sourpuss when it comes to Christmas. It was a magical time of year for me as a child, and not solely (or even primarily) because of the prospect of opening presents on Christmas morning. I liked the rituals of the season: the activities and pleasures enjoyed between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that recurred year after year, could to a certain extent by counted on — familiar, with subtle differences. A unique advent calendar every year; a new Christmas cookie recipe. Attending to the season is one way of slowing down, of mindfulness, during otherwise hectic times.

Here’s a list of five things I particularly appreciate about this pivot-point of the year.

Music. My parents had a rich collection of both secular and sacred, popular and classical Christmas music in our household — sheet music (my mother plays) and recordings. The holidays were a time for dusting off those particular albums or songbooks; every year starting on Thanksgiving day (no earlier) and ending in the week after Christmas we would fill the house with music. These days, we stream the local WGBH classical holidays station, and on Christmas eve make a point of tuning in to the Carols from Kings on MPBN. Music is a wonderful reminder that this is a season apart.

First Snow. Who doesn’t like the first fall of snow — that snow that actually sticks to the frozen ground and might, possibly, accumulate enough to build a snowman from? No child too young to be contemplating leaky pipes and shoveling out the drive, that’s for sure! As an adult who, likewise, doesn’t have to worry about shoveling I continue find the first snow magical — and as a Bostonian I am learning how often such an event might trigger a snow day! Back when I wasn’t in work or school such events made little difference — now they hold the promise of days blanketed in quiet and the bliss of enforced non-labor as we hunker down and listen to the muffled world outside.

Books. When are books not in my top five? Growing up, my family had a whole set of picture books and longer works that we packed away to be gotten out and re-discovered each year: Runaway Sleigh RideChristmas in Noisy VillageThe Conscience PuddingHolly and Ivy and more. These days, it’s Child’s Christmas in Wales, perhaps, and of course tuning in to the Doctor Who Christmas special; holiday stories are as much as part of December as holiday music is.

Nesting. The holiday season was a time for us to spend time making our home-space feel dressed up and special. I particularly enjoyed the annual Christmas tree decoration ritual, the unpacking of the ornaments and placement on the tree, the way its pine scent would permeate the house. Food, too, plays a role in place-making, as did the creche we had out atop the piano (always with baby Jesus in his parents’ arms thank you very much). We haven’t decorated much this year — we’ve had our fill of place-making moving house, and our cats would destroy a tree, sadly. But we’re marking the season with advent calendars that visually count down the days to The Long Rest.

Time. As a child, the December holiday season seemed to stretch out forever, long and leisurely from Thanksgiving through St. Nicholas Day to the sharp, clear notes of the New Year. During my teens and twenties, I was more often than not working feverishly during that period, slave to either the academic or retail calendar — or both! These days, the opposite is true: Our libraries slow, people take time off, offices are empty, meetings are postponed. Even our researchers seem less harried, at peace with the limits of the day, the week, the season. Perhaps being in New England — a climate of sudden storms, early darkness, a closing-in — encourages hibernation. We re-learn, in the deepening midwinter, the ways in which we are creatures of the light. And slow down accordingly. I am thankful for this pause the end of the year allows us here.

What do you find soul-nourishing this time of year, as we walk into the longest night?

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