The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley
— Robert Burns
On Christmas Eve, I sat back amidst the pillows on the sofa with a contented sigh.
The tree was casting a beautiful glow over the filled-to-bursting stockings and colorfully wrapped gifts that lay beneath its adorned branches. The last four days had been spent in the kitchen, making fudge, peanut brittle, chocolate dipped pretzel rods, gingersnaps, chocolate brandy truffles, molasses biscuits, white chocolate candy cane bark, mince tarts, and cookie press cookies sprinkled with red and green glitter. These were packaged in waxed paper and placed in sacks, ready to distribute as enticing tokens from the mischievous "Lord of Misrule".
Christmas Day dawned with an icing-sugar layer of snow on garden gates, tree branches and arbors. The ride to 'grandmother's house' was a jocular one, collecting great aunts and packages along the way. The day began with the traditional snapping of Christmas Crackers before the meal, trading the riddles and toys that came inside, and wearing our tissue paper crowns throughout the feast, the present opening, and dessert.
Later that evening, I settled down by the tree in my cottage with a cup of hot chocolate, envisioning what the days leading up to the New Year would hold: a pleasant succession of visits from near and dear friends and far away loved ones, plates of cookies and pots of tea, exchanging gifts and gossiping by the fire. On New Year's Eve I would stand at the door and ring my great-grandparents' old cow bell to welcome in another 365 days of promise. And then on Twelfth Night, once the 12 days of Christmas had played out to a happy conclusion, I would dismantle the tree, put away the decorations, and bid adieu to another lovely winter's holiday.
What I did not envision, as I drifted off to sleep on Christmas night, was a visitation by three unwelcome Christmas Spectres: 'flu, head cold, and respiratory hacking, all of which left me indisposed for the next 19 days. Throughout it all the gifts remained beneath the tree, the near and dear and far-away folks I'd hoped to see kept their safe distance (and who could blame them?) while my tree and I communed daily from my pillow-and-blanket-strewn perch on the sofa.
New Year's Eve found me fast asleep, bell-less and dead to the world as the year turned over. Twelfth Night came and went and still the tree held court, albeit a drier and droopier version of itself. Fearing spontaneous combustion, I finally managed to dismantle it four days ago, packing up all the ornaments and removing all but the small table tree in the dining room.... something festive to have on hand for any late visitors who venture closer now that the worst is over.
It wasn't the holiday season I had imagined, despite my careful planning. I had not anticipated being so contemplative, quiet, and solitary for those twelve-plus days of Christmas, unable to share the sweets, gifts and festive garnishment of my home with those I loved. But perhaps, as an old year rolled back and a new one arrived, seeing how little control one truly has over life's peculiar twists and turns was a valuable lesson to take to heart in a hubris-laden world. After the last magazine was read, the last crossword puzzled out, and the last version of "A Christmas Carol" watched for the umpteenth time, I realized with some self-deprecation that planning anything—from a Christmas holiday to a garden bed—must always be balanced by that teeter-totter of optimistic hopefulness and loins girded for disappointment.
All things considered, the holiday was not a total loss. I did manage to read most of Marie Antoinette's biography (which put my own situation in stunning perspective) and, like Tiny Tim, I did not die. However, I've eaten most of the candy I was going to give away.
The Lord of Misrule made me do it.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fast away the old year passes...
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses...
(Are you going to eat that last pretzel....?)