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RETHINKING THE HOLIDAYS: Gwenyfar gets into the holiday spirit and readers should, too

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The Hooper-Rohler House, which is now Between the Covers Literary Bed and Breakfast, joined the Old Wilmington by Candlelight Tour last weekend—the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society’s holiday fundraiser. Above is an ornament of the house, hand-painted by Pat Bittenbender; (below) the dining-room table is set for holiday dinner, with literary guests like Edgar Allen Poe, ready to celebrate the season. Photos by Gwenyfar Rohler


“Sweetheart, you realize this is going from ‘no holidays’ to like, ‘holidays on steroids,’ right?” I asked Jock.

“Yes, but your mother would be so proud,” he responded.

“No, she wouldn’t—OK you’re right she would. Damn it.”

We were discussing the 47th Old Wilmington by Candlelight Tour, a fundraiser for the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. Against my better judgment, I agreed to let the bed and breakfast join the 2019 tour.

In addition to the possibility of nearly 800 people walking through the house, it also meant we had to decorate for the holidays. That might seem simple and relatively obvious, but for us it proved to be exactly the opposite.

Now, I knew there were boxes upon boxes of holiday decorations somewhere in my parents’ house. After my mother died, they disappeared. Last year, I found four boxes while in the last, desperate push of rearranging and organizing, trying to get the bed and breakfast open for business.
Since my mother’s passing and especially since my father’s, the holidays became pretty ominous for me. Jock and I have never decorated and trying to celebrate “holidays” with him was frequently more fraught than necessary. I tended to look upon the stretch from late October to January as an endurance test to get through without breaking down in tears in public, or resorting to more dire and fateful measures.

Last year my friend Allison suggested maybe it was time to start rethinking the holidays—start some traditions of our own, rather than yearn for something beyond reality.

I am not very good at receiving unsolicited advice.

Just ask Jock.

But I admit: She had a point. With the bed and breakfast, guests would expect decorations, so I tentatively purchased three ornaments: two of dogs—each of which looked like Horace and Hilda in Santa hats—and a typewriter. Along with some garland, they made the stairwell look festive. I didn’t drop dead from pain or longing, and it all seemed pretty OK.

But people do not buy tickets for a holiday home tour to look at things that are “pretty OK.” I knew I would really have to decorate.

Jock was adamant the playhouse in the backyard—which is older than the main house—was what we should focus on, thereby making the garden a centerpiece. It also put focus on the history of the area and family continuity, both of which are very important to us.

“Great!” I responded. “That’s Dagmar’s department!” Dagmar Cooley of Dagmar’s Designs took the garden from frightful to beautiful in a matter of months. Now, she and her crew lovingly maintain it. Any alterations go through her.

Dagmar arrived with two truckloads of decorations for the garden and house. Truly, if we make it through this event in one piece, it is because of Dagmar’s generosity. Last week she brought the first load of paper-white bulbs.

“These need to go somewhere warm,” she directed her son, who had been conscripted to help unload everything. He dutifully deposited the trays of bulbs in the dining room, and returned several more times with nearly 18-inch-tall blooms. I reminded Dagmar house plants die here because we just do not get enough natural sunlight (the house was built before air conditioning, and therefore was designed to stay as cool as possible in the hot summer months). She waved away my concerns and began explaining the care they would need.

Meanwhile, we—Rachel, my right hand at the bed and breakfast, and I—began the descent into holiday decor available for the home. In addition to all the lovely garlands, wreathes and statuettes that Dagmar loaned us, she had given me the gift of a model VW bug transporting a tree dusted with snow. Rachel and I tried to get a handle on what this would look like, how it would all go, and scanned advertisements and decorating pictures. I never really purchased anything with the intention of decorating for holidays, and Rachel has two small children, so their household tends to focus around things fun-oriented and not breakable.

What I started to realize is the idea of holiday décor was getting a little weird.

Most of encore’s readership no longer grows the majority of their own food—and does not need to plan for food storage in order to eat until spring. Electric lights are the norm, so the idea of a long, dark winter when the days get shorter and the longest night of the year is a profound experience, seems superfluous. Heat pumps are the norm, so preparing firewood, stacking it to cure, parceling it out to keep family alive and finding a log big and fat enough to burn through the solstice night (i.e. The Yule Log) is a quaint and distant myth to many. (Jock and I still heat with wood, so it is not to us; winter solstice is a very real thing in our household, with a crackling fire in the woodstove and two dogs curled up close to us for warmth.)

Thus, I was surprised at the number of decorative “Yule Logs” available for purchase for decor, yet nary a remembrance of what its use really was. Even more so, all the holiday’s lovely little decorative items require no real planning or labor. Outside of opening a package and agonizing over where to place them in the house, there is no real effort, work or concern.

Our modern ideas of holiday celebrations—the tree, stockings, big family picture—were largely created in the Victorian Era. Between the British Royal Family and Charles Dickens, a very lovely image emerged, and was effectively marketed in England, the Commonwealth and United States. Sensing the potential for sales, companies like Coca-Cola picked up the ball and ran with it. Add in an Elvis movie, the Griswolds, Charlie Brown, and, well, today there is an amazing visual smorgasbord of possibilities for holiday decor.

It is lovely the holidays are becoming such an all-embracing experience. For me, part of the point of the winter solstice, and the dark time of year, is to remember we are at the mercy of nature: When you get down to it, our existence is pretty fragile, and in the grand scheme of things, ephemeral. I hear a lot about the commercialization of Christmas and the holiday season. Frankly, I am not so worried about it as some. In America, at least, things we spend money on are things we value. So, if the holidays are a major financial focus, they are remembered and not forgotten. Tremendous sums are spent on decorations, food, gifts, parties and making memories together. If that doesn’t communicate importance to America, nothing does.

But this planet we depend upon for the life we share is in a state of peril. Part of the point of our mid-winter celebrations is to remind us by sharing resources, we can survive hard times. Now, I’m not suggesting you rip out your very expensive heat pump and start heating with wood. (Though, seriously, it does change how you view the experience of self- and family-preservation on nights it gets below freezing.) Nor am I suggesting you try to be entirely self-sufficient (though, growing your own food is an incredible experience that will reconnect you with actual effort it takes to produce substance for humanity).

Still, as the nights get longer and days get colder, it is not unreasonable to consider the why and what behind the activities of the season. Why did you move here? What makes this area vibrant? Is it big-box stores and the abundance of online shopping opportunities for identical items? Or is it wonderful, individual chef-owned restaurants and small family boutiques and galleries that create the charm of the area?

In addition to having a family dinner or office party at one of those special restaurants that do not exist anywhere else except here (unlike chains that can be found in every major city across the US), perhaps give a gift certificate to one of them to a special friend. It’s a way of making a date for y’all to spend time together later.

As for those charming boutiques and galleries that create the ambiance of life here, they need your support at this time of year far more than larger corporations and big-box stores. Instead of finding exactly what’s on someone’s list, how about looking for something that reminds you of them—that they did not even know even existed?

What we surround ourselves with is a reflection of what we value—not just with decorations but as a city and community. We need each other to get through this—not just climate change, or political upheaval and uncertainty, but on the difficult road called life.

Please, as you embrace the holiday season, ask yourself what it is you really value. Make an investment in your local community to share with your loved ones. Many depend on you.

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