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Trolling for Christmas

by Julia Sneden

The word troll is an interesting word. It comes from the Middle English trollen, and it has many meanings, among them:

    - singing loud and lustily, or celebrating in song, as in troll the ancient Yuletide carol
    - sitting quietly with a hook on a line, waiting for a fish to strike  
    -  an unappealing creature from Scandinavian folklore, given to lurking under bridges and in caves, with nasty intentions to humankind

I can find good use for all three meanings at this time of year:

A dear friend who suffers miserably every Christmas season talks about how depression stalks him, waiting to jump out, grab him, and pull him under. His seasonal misery cant be dispatched. The cheerier the rest of the world becomes, the blacker his mood: a true troll-and-bridge situation.

Singing loud and lustily, or course, goes without saying during the holidays. I remember the years when my family and the neighbors daughters went caroling each Christmas Eve, walking our California hilltop in the black December dark, flashlights playing along the rough edges of the road. In those days, no one thought to offer us money or refreshments, and we would have been insulted if they had. We must have been a raggedy crew, at least vocally. My poor brothers was the only male voice; we three little girls piped away, trying to carry the melody like true sopranos, but we were inevitably pulled off key by my mothers strong, trained contralto.

If we didnt sing beautifully, we sang completely, every word of every verse. I dont remember setting out to learn all those words, but somehow we just did, because we never had to carry a song sheet. To this day, I can render up every part of Good King Wenceslas or all six verses of The First Noel.

One year it rained with a vengeance, but we put on our slickers and put up our umbrellas, and did our rounds anyway. At each house, we started with Deck The Halls because the last verse seemed to fit:
       sing we joyous, altogether, falalalalalalalala,
             heedless of the wind or weather, falalalalalalala

The last house we came to was newly built and we didnt know the owners. We had a huddled conference about whether or not we should sing to them, as we had heard that they were elderly and in ill health, and we didnt want to alarm or disturb them. 

Oh, lets do it, said my friend
All right, said my mother, Deck The Halls, one more time. And we sang with gusto, the rain blowing onto our wrists and hands and drips from the umbrellas trickling down around us.

The elderly couple stood in the door, arms entwined, nodding in time.

That was lovely, the old man said as we finished. Its a Welsh song, you know. Did you know that we are Welsh? and his voice trembled.

Yes, his wife said, were Welsh, and we have been so homesick! How did you know what to sing for us?

We hadnt known, of course. But from then on, the Winterras house was our favorite stop on Christmas Eve, and we sang Deck The Halls even when the weather was fine and warm.

It has been a long time since our little family and friends trolled our carols around the neighborhood, and these days the joyous feeling of Christmas seems harder to find. Some years it comes more easily than others, but it always does come. Theres usually a quiet, defining moment when one is suddenly aware that yes, Christmas really is here. Often we hear people say: I just havent gotten the Christmas spirit yet this year! as they rush to finish shopping and wrapping and inviting and cooking, but I have never heard anyone say after the fact: I never did get the Christmas spirit this year. I assume that, like me, they just keep moving until it strikes them. Last year, it walked in the front door with our granddaughters. This year, for good and logical reasons, they wont be coming.

I live in a part of the country that has a large Moravian population. Moravians celebrate the season of Advent, putting up large, beautiful lighted white stars, and making wreaths which sit on a table or hang horizontally, with four candles on them to represent the four Sundays before Christmas. Its a gentle introduction to the holiday season, and if I could be left with that alone, I might slip into the spirit more readily.

Outward manifestations of Christmas are everywhere. Unfortunately, the drugstores and groceries and gift shops begin to put out their garish Christmas stock the week before Halloween. Off-key, digital renditions of Silent Night or the ubiquitous Rudolph ping from toys and greeting cards. I try steadfastly to ignore them as I concentrate on October and then November and Thanksgiving. By December first, I feel pressured and angry. 

This year, I decided that maybe I needed to do a little Christmas search, like the fisherman who throws out his line and trolls for his supper. I gave myself a short lecture about being ready to receive the spirit, and I set out to find it.

On the way to the mall, I drove through an affluent neighborhood, and looked at the cheery decorations. The wreaths and bows and window candles brought me a measure of warmth, until I drove by a backyard where there was a huge playhouse up on stilts. Over each door and window there hung a red-ribboned wreath, matching exactly the ones on the larger house. I found myself muttering: Oh, please!

Its not that Im against decoration. My own house is a riot of Christmas décor, gathered over the past 40 years and hauled out with enthusiasm. We celebrate with everything from a lovely creche to glittered (but faded) bakers clay ornaments made years ago by our small sons. It strikes me that Id not have been at all offended to see wreaths on that playhouse had they been made by the children whose playhouse it is. The décor wouldnt have looked as tidy and it surely wouldnt have matched the big house, but at least one would have had a sense that the children had had some say in the matter.

After a seemingly interminable wait for a parking place, I trolled the mall. I found glitter and piped music and interminable waftings of potpourri. Escalators were full of people looking intent and grim, their parcels bumping against the railings or the people in front or behind. Lines at the cash registers (provided you could find one) were long. So was the wait to get out of the parking lot.

I looked in the craft shop, where I picked up materials to make a puppet for my granddaughter. There was more glitter, and bins of plastic poinsettias, gilded angels of all sizes and shapes, and holly of a brilliant green which Mother Nature would blush to see.

When I got home, the Christmas spirit didnt have a chance. There were too many chores undone, lists made but not tackled, dust collecting on the unwrapped presents, cookies unbaked, and time running out.

I even looked for the Christmas spirit in my mothers nursing home, where the sick and elderly sit silently by the artificial tree the aides have decorated for them, their faces blank as they stare at the lights. Perhaps they are remembering other times, or perhaps they are simply interested in something different in the dreary halls. It is hard to tell, because they are no longer communicative.

My mother and I stood before the large, carved wooden creche.  Id love to pick up one of those figures and feel it, said my nearly-blind mother, but the aide told me I mustnt touch. By then, I was feeling pretty discouraged about finding the spirit this year. I couldnt figure out where to look next. I should have remembered Rachel Carson, who said: Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

Last Sunday morning, I woke up early, and went out to fetch the papers. Our local delivery man throws his paper on the walk near the porch, but on Sundays we also get The New York Times, which is left up at the top of our long, steep driveway. Shivering in the frosty, pre-dawn darkness, I scurried to retrieve it, my breath sending out clouds ahead of me. I picked up the paper, and as I straightened up and turned, I looked up at the sky. It was black and clear and crowded with stars, with the merest hint of light in the east. And there, hanging about 45 degrees above the horizon in the southeast, was a planet, Venus, I think, its brilliant dot of light pure and cold and beautiful beyond belief. I stood for a moment in absolute stillness, and into my mind came an old Moravian hymn that begins:

       Morning Star, o cheering sight
        Ere Thou camst how dark Earths night...

I tucked the paper under my arm and looked back down the driveway at my house, its dark silhouette pierced by a light in the kitchen window. I knew with certainty that the moment I had looked for had instead found me. I hurried down the driveway and into a warm house that was redolent with freshly brewed coffee, and absolutely full of the Christmas spirit.



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