Every year I tell myself not to have expectations. By now I am familiar with the mounting excitement that accompanies the days somewhere between Halloween and New Year’s Day. I am perhaps even better acquainted with the starkness of January, a month that can’t seem to help feeling sober after December is over. This year, I wanted the season to be different. I don’t want to slide into a new year disappointed with the ending of this one.
I started, as I often do, with the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has several definitions for the word “romantic,” but two of them stood out to me: “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” and “having no basis in fact.” I sighed and read a little further down the page: “marked by expressions of love or affection.” The synapses of my brain began to fire. What if, this year, I directed my attention away from the mysterious and remote, everything out of my reach, and instead focused on what was actually in front of me, with love? What if I reveled in the reality, rather than longing for what had never been?
My first opportunity came as I was writing a piece about Twelfth Night cake. My years in the liturgical church have made my ears perk up whenever I hear about the season of Christmas. I loved the idea of twelve days to spread into, and the beauty of marking the transition from Christmas to Epiphany. The traditional Twelfth Night cake has a dried bean or a tiny baby Jesus, baked inside, a surprise which confers honor upon the person whose piece of cake plays host. For years I’ve thought about having a Twelfth Night party, but I never have. I’ve been waiting not to be single, waiting to live in a house with a big kitchen, waiting for an invitation from someone who is not so hopeless at baking as I am. Not this year. I marked it on the calendar before reaching out to a friend to help me bake the cake.
On Black Friday, I was at Trader Joe’s, nearly alone except for several employees busily stocking the store with Christmas goodies. Last year, I received their holiday flyer and made notes of everything I wanted to give as gifts (or sample myself), but by the time I got to the store, almost everything was sold out. It seems like a small disappointment, perhaps, but it made me feel that delight was scarce. If I didn’t hurry, it would run out.
This year, all of those empty shelves were full, the same products back again for a seasonal appearance. Finally, I would be able to sample the balsamic chocolate caramels that had so fascinated me last year. I whispered a word of thanks for this simple gift.
Advent began at my church that Sunday. Every season, we change up our service a little bit. My pastor does her best to keep us on our toes. For Advent, we’re singing a song every week that functions as a round. One side of the sanctuary begins, and the second side chimes in, following the hymnal. Let my prayer rise up like incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as an offering to you. Keep watch within me God; deep in my heart may the light of your love be burning bright. It seems like such a simple song, but it swirls and builds, filling our little church. I drink in this song like airborne grace. It follows me throughout the week. I catch myself humming it as I do the dishes or scramble my eggs.
After church, we have a pop-up Advent shop filled with Fair Trade gifts. I find a soft llama ornament that speaks to me and carry it with me as I leave. For years, I’ve been putting off buying a Christmas tree, even a little one. I’ve been waiting for something, I suppose. Waiting for a perfect picture window, or a puppy, or some sign that I’m grown up enough to be in charge of the decorating in one small corner of the world. No more. Today, I stop at the little vintage shop near my house, decorated to the brim. There is a small tree in the window, sparkling with white lights and perched in a white urn. I look through the whole store to see my other options, but I already know that this is the one. Once home, I hang my llama on it, the rest of the decorating on hold until I buy an extension cord and find the box of Christmas things I somehow misplaced in my move this past summer.
After looking through my entire house, it’s clear that the box isn’t there. I begin to question my sanity. Still, I have to meet a deadline, so further looking will have to wait.
The next day, I drive to my parents’ house and begin to poke around. I look in all the likely places, finally finding the box on a high shelf in the garage. I take it home, along with my new extension cord, and begin unwrapping relics of my childhood. This box is full of things collected over the years, like my Nutcracker collection (one for each time I was in the holiday ballet), Christmas-themed stuffed animals, the stocking I always hung over the fire, a panda in a Santa hat.
Then, there are the ornaments: a picture of me as a three-year-old, glued to the metal top of a frozen orange juice lid, a tiny baby Jesus nestled into a walnut shell, his smiling face drawn on a tiny wooden ball with a permanent marker, my Hogwarts Express from a trip to the Wizarding World with my brother a couple of years ago. I hang them all, savoring the fact that they don’t go together, that some of them are hokey.
My pastor invites me to the Advent party she and her family throw every year. It is the highlight of my social calendar, always swimming with fascinating people. In years past, I’ve regretted not having a plus-one to bring, or, failing that, meeting someone there. Although I always have a good time, somehow I enter with a love deficiency. This year, I went to my favorite resale shop and bought a dress that makes me feel like a champagne cocktail. I’m going to this party as my own date, secure in love of known and also-loved people, secure in the love of God, and, perhaps most shocking of all, secure in my love for myself. I already have my heels picked out.
Driving home in the rain a couple of weeks ago, the red lights from the new Mexican restaurant mixed with the green traffic lights, creating a slick of holiday color. Instead of a wet mess, it felt like a gift, a cacophony of color for my damp drive home. I wondered if I would have seen it if I hadn’t been paying attention, keeping my eyes peeled for moments of wonder.
Perhaps I am just peppering the everyday with significance that isn’t there, but I hope that I am embodying the definition of “romantic” that I like the best. I am marking my days and moments with expressions of love and affection. I am picking them up and holding them to the light. This is not an ideal Advent or Christmas season (those have no basic in fact), but it is one I’m desperately trying to pay attention to and savor nonetheless.
Cara Strickland is a writer focusing on food and drink, faith and singleness. Read more of her work at carastrickland.com.