Pictures from home lately have made my social media feeds a beautiful winter fairyland. I love this part of winter - technically, almost-winter, but no one in the upper Midwest judges seasons by the date on the calendar - when the snow is crystalline and pure. Come late January, as the white has turned to sludgy gray and everything is iced and barren and forlorn, winter feels endless and unforgiving. But in December there is still hope in the air and wonder at the magic of it all.
We wondered what Christmas would be like in Louisiana. "I bet people don't get as into it here," Jason kept saying, almost hopefully, his Jewish uneasiness with all things Santa bobbing up above the surface. It's easy to see why Germany and Scandinavia have the richest of holiday traditions, both Christian and pagan, that so many of our Christmas memories are wrapped in. The need for the light-in-the-darkness metaphor doesn't feel so urgent when it's warm enough to take a dip in the apartment complex swimming pool.
But though the need may not be as urgent, the checkout lines at Target prove Christmas is big business here. It just looks a little different than what we're used to. In typical New Orleans fashion, the brighter and kitschier the better when it comes to holiday decorations. Subtly twinkling lights reflecting off snowy trees aren't a possibility even if subtlety were a welcome trait, so instead lawns are filled to overflowing with inflatable tidings of good cheer.
I started the month of November overflowing with good cheer, too - happiness about making real progress on my writing goals, excitement about the upcoming holidays and spending my favorite time of year in a new city. And then sadness crept into the corners of everything: ugliness and violence on college campuses, terror in Paris, continued horrors in the Middle East, mass shootings here in New Orleans and around the country. Another cancer diagnosis and looming weeks of surgery, radiation, and recovery for my mom. Overwhelming feelings of dread that kept me up at night and zapped away all the drive I had to spend the month being thankful and motivated. My momentum and energy deflated like those sad Santas you see facedown in the grass, waiting for someone to come and make their bowlful-of-jelly bellies jolly again.
But time marches on, and December, the month and the meaning, has been looming large on the calendar for quite some time despite my own feelings on the subject of making merry. Everyone here seems to agree that the only way to properly ring in the season is at Celebration in the Oaks, which is City Park's massive light display. It opened the night after Thanksgiving, and car loads of locals were lined up on City Park Avenue by dusk. We had just dropped our houseguests off at the airport after a week of turkey and football and all-American revelry, and we decided to peek into the festivities from across the pond.
It was pinch-me-I'm-dreaming balmy and as soon as they were out of the car the girls took off running into the warm air, eager to shed the weight of "be on your best behavior" they'd been shouldering all week. Jason and I ran along behind, laughing at their squeals of joy every time they spotted a new display through the veils of Spanish moss: flamingos and swans standing guard over the pond, trumpets and trombones dangling from branches, a pirate ship headed straight for a mermaid sitting next to a treasure chest of gold, a pelican with mouth wide open to catch a jumping, flashing fish. You know, all the typical Yuletide emblems, sparkling with brilliance amongst the fully-leaved, blooming trees, just like the Christmases of my Minnesota childhood. "Let's hide under these pine trees!" the girls kept shouting, no matter how many times I reminded them that they are palms.
There were just two displays that we could actually get to from our side of things. One was a giant wire Santa and his sleigh, a garish beacon beckoning the season and simultaneously bidding farewell to the line of traffic slouching towards Bethlehem, or at least towards Canal Street. The other was a stand of trees with Chinese paper lanterns and strings of lights to look like jellyfish. We darted in and out of the trees and across the field towards Santa, yelling and laughing and panting for breath. A line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower kept echoing in my head: "and in that moment, I could swear we were infinite." My grinchy heart was big and light for the first time in weeks. It was like the sticky, firefly-lit nights of summer when the world is vibrantly alive and everything feels possible and you can no longer remember how it felt to believe - truly believe, in the depths of your February despair - that it would be cold and dark and colorless forever.
When we piled into the car, still laughing, to head home, I wanted to cling to that sweet-smelling summer night feeling, so I popped in the mix CD I had made for our car trip when we moved down here in late July. "Is this 'Dog Days Are Over'?" Lorelei asked from the back, and the girls sang along at the top of their lungs, the lyrics miraculously bubbling up in their brains after months without hearing them. "Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father," they sang as we drove past the brightly lit tree lot on Pontchartrain Boulevard, already overrun with customers. "The dog days are over, the dog days are done. Can't you hear the horses? Because here they come!"
Happiness does hit you, in the words of Florence and the Machine, like a bullet in the back sometimes, especially when you've turned your back on the idea in the first place. Anne Lamott, one of my writing idols, said it much better than I ever could: "This is the time of year when in every wisdom tradition and religion, we ask ourselves, Will the Light really come again this year? Will there REALLY be Spring? Left to my own devices, I think, Probably not, or 50-50; but faith tells me that no matter how sick and in trouble the trees look, things will be okay, that we are all connected, that if we light a few candles, scatter some seeds, plant some bulbs, try to help as we can, stick close to each other as we prepare for the end of despair, that there will be enough light, buds on the trees, hope. And hope always catches us by surprise." I'm still struggling in that winter darkness to get to that 50-50, to believe that the dog days are over and Spring will come at last to our sick, troubled world. But nights under jellyfish lights swaying in trees that have never lost their leaves in the first place, in this town of endless hopefulness even amidst terrible grief, make me feel connected once again to that which is infinite, and for that I am thankful.