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December 17, 2012: Bittersweet

December 17, 2012

Bittersweet LayoutI know what you would say. “We have more than enough Christmas traditions. There is no need to concern ourselves with yet another Christmas decoration” and in one sense you’d be correct. We have all the holly, ivy, wreaths, mistletoe, Yule Logs, perfectly healthy conifers that we cut down and bring inside to put lights on. No, I’m talking a decoration for a very different set of folks. Let’s say the holly, ivy, etc. are for the “haves” of the world, because let’s be honest…few people with money collect decorations from nature. I know of no one now that actually goes out to chop down the Christmas tree, anymore. Most people buy Christmas decorations, and if you have the ready cash to buy temporary vegetation to decorate your home for the Christmas season, that pretty much qualifies you as a “have” as opposed to a “have-not.”

Here, I want to break off and say I hope you are a “have.” I sincerely want each and every single one of you to be a “have” because now that I have had the experience of a “have-not” there is no one I would wish this state upon. Yet, I am far from alone…not this Christmas anyway, and for most Christmases either. As the man said once,”The poor will be with us always.”

The Christmas decoration that I propose for the “have-nots” is that of the American Bittersweet. First, it is a true American plant, as opposed to the holly and the ivy, both which grow in the Americas, but it is the European varieties that we see at Christmas. Bittersweet has a festive coloring, forming red berries with the occasional yellow sheath covering, just before Christmas. It is found on a long, flexible vine that can be wound around like a wreath or cut into smaller pieces. It grows in abundance just about anywhere in the wild and is free for the taking. Symbolically, it is appropriate for us “have-nots” as like poverty, Bittersweet can surround and choke off all other life it grows around. Most symbolic is the plant’s name, because as we all carry memories of better Christmases, being poor at Christmas can be perfectly described as “bittersweet.”

Bittersweet_LThe Sweet
My first introduction to Bittersweet as a decoration was at my last “real” Christmas four years ago. I was visiting my sister in Western New York State and she had her house decorated in her unique and quirky artistic style. Every corner of her house had a different and usually antique, decoration or toy. I noticed she had tastefully placed vines of red berries with yellow accents behind a number of pieces of artwork and when I asked what they were and she told me it was Bittersweet. As always, she was the perfect chef and hostess and served the family a most wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner, complete with candlelight, champagne, and  a slew of wonderful Christmas desserts she is famous for. Christmas morning was the best because I had the money to spoil my niece and nephew with a shower of gifts. As Christmases go, it doesn’t get more sweet than that.

No Cash at Christmas is a Real Dickens
Probably the biggest success story of being poor at Christmas is famous because it has been turned into the best-loved Christmas stories in English literature. Despite having been the most celebrated authors of his time, just before Christmas 1843, Charles Dickens was having his own financial crunch. His last two novels were a critical, but not monetary, success. He had just come back from a bad tour of America, where he hoped to get new ideas. It wasn’t a good mix. Dickens found Americans crude and boorish. They found him foppish and irritating. With his fifth child born and overdrawn at the bank, Dickens needed a real good story, and he needed it quick! Dickens was forever haunted by the idea of poverty. When he was eleven, he was pulled out of school and had to work at a boot-blacker shop as his father was put into a debtors prison for his own bad money management. Not only was the work, messy, dirty, smelly and filling the long day with mind-numbing dullness, but Dickens had ignominy of having to perform his job in front of a window for passer-bys. He was never going down that road again if he could help it.

So, by locking himself in a room with pen and paper, in just six weeks, he Bittersweet_Cpounded out “A Christmas Carol” and self-published it just in time for the Christmas season. The rest, they say, is history. He had managed to not only eventually rekindle his bank account but also to capture the perfect and concise story of what it means to be human. He also, single-handedly reinvented Christmas from a not-so-special holiday into what we know of it today. He managed to do all this, while at the same time not sacrificing his moral or creative ideals. Due to his own experiences, Dickens was much concerned with the education of English youths and counted it as the only way to improve the welfare of his nation’s future. Witness, the youthful spectres of “Want” and “Ignorance” that are sheltered under the Ghost of Present Christmas’s cloak.

As with our dreams, storytellers tell stories about what they know…and what they know best is themselves. It is understandable that in “A Christmas Carol” Dickens is at once Cratchit, Fezziwig, and Scrooge, especially when chastised for his avarice from his young finacee with, “You fear the world too much!”

Bittersweet_RThe Bitter
Yet who could blame anyone for “fearing the world too much” when you are under the threat of poverty? The fear is generating from the idea that you have no real control over your life. Having some experience with this, now for the fourth year, I would like to offer some thoughts that may possibly help others in my “have-not” condition (and might not hurt those of the “have” category as well!) Most of these are indeed old chestnuts, so roast them long and slow over your Christmas hearth:

No amount of wretchedness can remove your good memories. Those are yours forever. Use them to remember a time when things were not as bad. All things pass.

Never lose your ideals. There is one thing worse than being poor and that is being poor and not being able to look yourself in the mirror from being bad to yourself or others.

The only real thing you have control over is your attitude. Misery hates laughter. Find the humor. You might even find (like Dickens) with a little imagination, you have a good story.

You might feel embarrassed because it seems  you are failing. Please stop. The only people your condition matters to, are the ones who love you anyway and sincerely want you to improve. Just do your best.

The world tends to obscure blessings through the cataract of misery. Look closer. You will find blessings behind the veil.

Find solace in the free (or cheap) stuff…it is usually the best stuff anyway. Libraries, laughter of children, exercise, sunlight, fresh air, the occasional moment of grace….and just a whiff of hope, are all not to be undervalued.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point out that like most Christmas decorations, Bittersweet is also slightly poisonous and should not be placed in households with pets and small children.

To my friends and family: to all the “haves” and “have-nots;” I wish you a most lovely and wondrous Christmas season. Oh…one more exceptional free thing…a good wish. Yet…if I had wealth of millions that sincere good wish would still be the best of what I could offer.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Steve, I just read this. I am so touched! Love, Kath


  2. Those were a beautiful string of Christmases. Yes, because of my mother’s traditional and exquisite design sense, but all the more because you were present to share–and very much add to–the warmth of our Christmas eve sup and the day itself. You’ll always remain a feature of my cherished childhood Christmas-time memories.



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