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The Milk House: Behind the curtains of a Christmas column

Ryan Dennis Published on 10 December 2013

Full confession: I have to write the Christmas column for “The Milk House” in October. It is well before the Christmas decorations or snow on the ground, and I’m often in another country. I beat Wal-Mart, the radio and TV ads to the holidays by five or six weeks.

Although there is one store on Laugavegur Street here in Reykjavík that displayed ornaments on the first of the month, much to the guffaw of locals. Simply put, thinking about Christmas this early feels a little unnatural.

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I get the same anxieties when I buy my ticket home, which I also do at this time. It takes mental work to justify spending $1,000 – sometimes more – to spend two weeks at a place I’ve already spent most of my life.

I know I am a bad person because I can’t help to think – if only for a second – about some of the other things I could do with the money.

Starting in September, I begin reminding my parents how expensive the airfare is and sometimes say that I don’t know if I can afford it this year. Then, in October, I tell them I’ve bought the ticket. It’s my thousand-dollar thrill.

The mark of an honest writer is one who can avoid clichés – or at least camouflage them well. When it comes to Christmas, however, it seems like everything has been said, and many times over.

From greetings cards to TV specials to the things we tell each other, it’s a season top-heavy with clichés. As I get older, however, I’m starting to think that maybe that’s all right.

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I’ve been asking other expats in Iceland when they’re going home for the holidays. We exchange dates and complaints about how much airlines raise prices, both congratulating the person who found the cheapest airfare while hating him at the same time.

I also asked my German housemate, but she said she wasn’t going home for Christmas. Her mother and sister will visit her here, but Christmas isn’t a big deal for them. She didn’t mention it then, but I know that her father had passed away several years ago.

Although one, perhaps, has no right to assume things about the personal lives of others, I can imagine the holidays being difficult for her. It made me thankful to have a place to want to go back to, regardless of the cost. It’s an old lesson, but apparently I needed to hear it again.

Perhaps it’s fitting that New Year’s comes right after Christmas. Christmas is a season built around going back to the elemental things that are most important to us as humans: love, family, friendship and community.

It’s a chance to set aside, hopefully, the usual complications of living and allow the dinners, carols and each other to remind us of what really matters. It’s a chance to reset ourselves before the new year starts, and who better to do that with than the people who know us best.

Also, I would have to believe that between the grand notions of what Christmas means is room for the small details. Though I tend to forget them through the rest of the year, they are the things that define the season.

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Something would be missing if the Great Danes didn’t bat the ornaments off the tree with their tails as they passed by, if not for the glow of the Christmas lights on the porch in the early morning darkness, or if there wasn’t the anticipation that builds through the morning milking on Christmas or the bittersweet feelings of the night milking once the day has passed.

Somehow these things, too, help tie together everything that is important about the holidays.

I will be home when this column is published. The Progressive Dairyman will be in our bathroom, folded to this page. It will be crumpled from various people handling it and probably have water stains where people flicked their hands after washing them.

It will probably be in the bathroom where I, too, will read again this letter to myself. I have a feeling that there is nothing that the person writing now can say to the future self that he wouldn’t have already realized, once again, after the season has started.

I could tell him to enjoy it, but he will be; to be thankful, but he should be; to quit eating before he falls into a food coma, but he probably won’t listen. I could pull a saying from a greeting card, and although it would be OK, I’m not sure which to choose.

Maybe I should just say the same thing I want to tell anyone else reading this, and somehow in its own simple way, it would stand for everything: Have a Merry Christmas, Reader. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He is currently on a Fulbright scholarship in Iceland.

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