Christmas, Blood, and a Lamb

Since we got married, John and I have tried to find a new ornament each Christmas we’ve had a tree, something that would have some meaning for us. It’s been a struggle. Most of the ornaments you find in the Christmas shops, or worse, in the Christmas section of department stores, are lacking in soul. My favorite of the lot to date is a glass octopus that reminds me of the nativity octopus costume in Love, Actually, but it’s a strange connection.

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Stash Monster

Quite frankly, I’m starting to worry. I’ve read of other knitters who have issues with stash management and I’ve laughed politely at their woes. They lose track of their needles? Of how many they have? They have unfinished projects hogging perfectly good needles and sending them out to buy more? How cute. I have shaken my head and chuckled at the trials of disorganized people who can’t stick to one project at a time.

Christmas is coming. Did I mention that? It came to my house last weekend in the form of a very expensive care package from my mother, containing a boatload of yarn. I will never say no to a gift of yarn…no, that’s not true. I have met yarns that I would not let within a ten-foot radius of my stash, but given that ninety-five percent of my projects to date have been made with acrylics (not always the nicer ones either), I can honestly say that the pool of yarns I will reject utterly is quite small. That being said, of the said boatload lovingly sent and adoringly received, only two small skeins actually relate to projects I had planned on doing. My mother, you see, has a habit of introducing me to Things I Had No Idea I Needed In My Life.

Like toys. Last year, I went to visit my parents during one of my school breaks. On the way to drop me at the bus station to head home, Mom and I stopped in at A.C. Moore and she filled my suitcase with supplies (yarns, needles, and a book) pertaining to the creation of knitted bears. I had been accustomed to being the sort of person who was torn between laughing at people who knit toys and secretly admiring the prowess in whipping up cuteness out of thin air and string. Now I am officially in the camp of people who can whip up cuteness out of thin air and string and like it.

The most recent surprise attack of inspiration for creative genius was earrings. Mom was inspired to buy me more than 400 yards of sock yarn for a project that requires approximately 6, which means that I now need to make approximately 66.6 pairs of sock earrings before Christmas. A numerical coincidence? I think not.

Still, the project is so small and tempting that I had a hard time restraining myself from casting on the moment I managed to wind the yarn. (Not a small time requirement–I have only recently graduated from working mostly in worsted, and it was only in winding this massive hank of superfine yarn that I suddenly understood why people invest money and craft space in ball winders.) I had to finish the ears and eyes of a stuffed toy, and being an “organized knitter,” I didn’t want to start another project before I finished those ears. I therefore decided to stay up long past midnight working short rows in an almost flat round to finish the ears. Because keeping careful stitch count when you can barely keep your eyes open is a smart way to knit.

Who’s laughing now?

I am, actually, because my natural airheadedness has led me to develop a great capacity for laughing at myself. The ear of this particular toy is worked over 32 rounds. How many rounds did I knit before I realize I was following the instructions for the arm? Fourteen. I don’t care how tired you are–nearly fifty percent of an ear finished is far too much to knit without noticing that you’ve got an arm protruding from the side of a stuffed toy’s head where an ear ought to be.

After a few, brief hours of slumber, I did manage to rip out the arm and replace it with an ear. We won’t discuss the state of the grafting at the top of that ear…I’m just going to hope that the young recipient is not a skilled knitter. After my epic struggle with what was meant to be a simple Kitchener stitch, I was hesitant to move on to something new, but I attempted the earrings. Given the results, I may stick to earrings. I have more of a knack for them, it would seem, because I managed to turn out two pairs in one day with no particular catastrophes.

So here’s my new plan: everyone is getting earrings for Christmas. Even Dad. Now the only question is of what to do with the yarn monster in my living room that threatens to obtain sentience if I don’t turn it into a pile of presents before Christmas.

That, of course, is why I have cats.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s Christmastime again. No? Christmas isn’t until December? Clearly, you are not a crafter. If I let myself believe that Christmas is not until December, no one would get anything but gift cards from me. This weekend I went out and bought my first round of project-specific gift yarn. Already, I have a growing stack of quick little projects knit from my stash.

I always feel a little guilty giving people projects knit from my stash, actually. Almost half of the yarn that’s in there has either been bought on super deep clearance of given to me by other crafters who no longer wanted it. Last year, for example, my mother gave me a huge pile of red and gold Lion Brand Homespun that was meant to be turned into a Gryffindor scarf for my sister Cho. Mom hated working with the stuff and couldn’t bring herself to make a full scarf out of it. I took the yarn and with it the task. In my arrogance, I thought my medium of knitting would be better suited to the task.

Did you just hear that boom? That wasn’t thunder. It was the gods of knitting shaking with laughter.

I didn’t really need to use a pattern for the scarf, but I looked around for ideas to keep the edge from curling. I decided that the best advice was to knit the scarf in a tube, which means casting on twice as many stitches as you normally would in order to get a fabric that is twice as thick. It also meant knitting in the round, which is fine, but I’m a bit cheap when it comes to acquiring new tools. The most suitable needle in my case was a circular two sizes smaller than the recommended gauge for the yarn. “No problem,” I thought. I often knit with smaller-than-recommended needles because I like to make toys and the tight fabric is good for keeping the stuffing in.

In my mind, as I cast on, this scarf was going to be the easiest project I was doing that year. I mentally started planning ahead for more difficult projects because this one just wasn’t going to fill up enough time. I also started thinking about what else I should give Cho. After all, I had gotten the yarn for free, and this scarf was going to be so simple that it hardly seemed like a gift fit for a beloved sister.

The knitting gods are laughing again.

First of all, let me tell you something: eighty stitches for a bulky-yarn scarf is just too darn many. Forty stitches is too many, but I didn’t want to skimp on the width. This scarf was for my sister, after all. Let me tell you something else: two sizes too small is a bad idea with LB Homespun, especially if you normally need a size up to meet gauge because you knit with high tension like me. And one more thing: remember that the wider you make a scarf, the longer you’ll want to make it to give it proper scarfly proportions.

Three rows measured about half an inch and it took me 45 minutes to knit that far. (I measure my progress by how much  I get done during a typical t.v. show). I was working stockinette stitch, which means that my slowness was not a matter of getting used to the stitch. There was no getting used to that darn yarn. It split at every opportunity. It clung to other stitches. Stitches slipped off the needles every time I turned my back and hid stealthily amidst the curly refuge of the fabric. I am not a swearing person most of the time, but I believe a sailor could learn a lesson or two from what I had to say to that scarf. And did I mention I was working in stockinette stitch? In the round? Stitches, stitches everywhere, and not a single purl. Or increase. Or decrease. Or yarn over. Not only was it difficult…it was BORING.

John and I took to calling it the “Hateful Scarf.” I pulled out my ruler every few rows and wanted to cry every time I had to keep working in the same color. I began to worry about giving the scarf to my sister. How could something knit with so much venom towards the yarn ever be trusted to lie docile around my dear sister’s neck? Would the ill-will I bore Lion Brand at that moment rise up to strangle my sister on some evil skating trip? I tried saying nice things to the scarf as I knit, bottling up the vengeful wrath to be released out-of-range of the scarf’s hearing.

The only thing that kept me from frogging the project was thinking of the person I was making it for. This row is for the time we performed the execution scene from A Tale of Two Cities on the landing at school when we thought no one was around and earned ourselves a funny look from a history teacher. This row is for the time we sang “The Boxer” at the top of our lungs in the hall behind the P.A.C. This row is for being the first person to bring a Harry Potter book into our home. This is for the scratch we put in the basement ceiling while fencing with and umbrella and a music stand. This is for the story she wrote about alien banana invaders. This row is for the light bulb she gave me for graduating high school. And finally…these tassels are for the spiders I woke her up in the middle of the night to kill and the hundred times I went into her room to borrow the dictionary and stayed three hours, distracting her from your schoolwork.

When I tied off the last tassel and lifted the scarf from my blocking mat, all I could think was, “It’s huge.” I didn’t make a scarf to fit Harry Potter. I made a scarf to fit Hagrid…or possibly his giantess mother. This soft monster could bring mere mortals to their knees with nothing but it’s cozy hug. My sister is no fainting flower, but she wouldn’t exactly meet the height standards of the NBA either. At that point, as close to Christmas as we were, I just shook my head and sighed. It might strangle her or break her back, but I knit the serpentine beast and darn it, she was going to wear it and like it. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out it was teaching her Parseltongue.)

Thankfully, Cho is either a really good actor (um, yeah, no) or she loved the scarf in spite of its enormity. Possibly because of it. Possibly because she has an instinctive understanding of what went into the blasted thing.

Creating such monuments to my familial devotion, you now see, would be entirely impossible if Christmastime started after Thanksgiving. If I give you nothing but socks for Christmas, know that each sock represents 6-8 hours of contemplating everything I love about you, all of which compelled me to turn a heel and graft a toe. Twice. (If you only get one sock, of course, you might want to sit and think about what you’ve done.) In a way, I think homemade presents are a blessing to the maker as well, because they put us in the holiday spirit of love and kindness several months earlier. There’s a New Year’s resolution for you–want to keep Christmas all the year? Pick up knitting.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to see some yarn about an elephant.


Let There Be Light

One of the things I love most about designing a curriculum for kids is the opportunity to learn things I never knew and to rediscover half-forgotten tidbits of truth. As the holiday season is in full swing, I’ve been diving into books and the internet to dig up information about the major holidays people celebrate. Most of the kids in my program are from either Catholic or non-religious homes, so Christmas is the most popular holiday, but I have the luck to have a few who are being raised Hindu and Jewish, giving me the chance to wander around my casual hobby of comparative religious studies.

Please don’t take that last sentence as something offensive if you are religious. I have a deep respect for religion and the powerful role for good it can play in people’s lives and do not mean to suggest that accurate and meaningful comparisons can be easily made by a hobbyist scholar reading Wikipedia. All I mean to say is that as I dug around for stories and craft ideas to present my kids with a good multicultural holiday unit, I noticed something.

Do you know the story of Hanukkah? The ancient Israelites were constantly at war with other nations, in turn being conquered and regaining their freedom. A common part of the cycle was desecration of the Temple, the only holiest of spots for the children of Israel. One of these conquering kings turned the Temple into an altar for Zeus, which (among other prohibitions against core practices of the Jewish faith) caused the sons of a priest to incite a rebellion. When they won, largely because of the priest’s son they called Judah the Hammer (Judah Maccabee), they needed to rededicate the Temple by burning olive oil, but there was only enough oil for one day. The eight days over which Hanukkah is celebrated represent the eight days it took to prepare more oil, and as legend goes, the lamp miraculously never went out during those eight days.

The story of Diwali that I like best comes from Hinduism, though you’ll find different narratives in Sikhism and Jainism, which also celebrate the Indian Festival of Lights. The story says that the Demon-King Ravana had conquered Lord Rama and sent him into an exile that lasted fourteen years. When Lord Rama returned to cast out the false tyrant, his people celebrated by filling the sky with fireworks and lighting candles in their homes. Sound familiar? With ties to two other narratives, the celebration of Diwali is also much more generally explained as being about the triumph of good over evil. Of light over dark.

The story of Christmas I’ll share last and sparsely because probably most of my small readership knows it best: the God of Abraham and Isaac was born into human form so he could be the Light of the World. Tidbit of knowledge for you–the Jewish traditions of the Messiah predict a warrior king who would free the Israelites once again from political and religious persecution, as Judah the Hammer had once done. And we celebrate Christmas by putting candles in our windows, by stringing lights around an evergreen tree.

I would guess that it’s no coincidence that all of these different stories about light conquering darkness, good triumphing over evil, the faithful being freed from the oppressors are celebrated during the darkest moments of the year, just as the daylight is as scarce as it gets. Fear of the unknown haunts the dark for all people, limited as our eyesight is without light. Cold is the enemy that makes us all sadder, weaker, poorer, and hungrier. The lengthening of the days brings hope to life with every extra minute of sun, even now in a society where we can switch on a dozen lights with the flick of a finger.

I won’t try to make too much of this in order to avoid upsetting anyone whose own faith would be offended by being the subject of my quasi-anthropological ponderings, but I do think that these common threads among these different faiths underline a lovely thing in human nature. We can find hope in the very darkest moments and, comforted by the mere promise of better days, find it in ourselves to be generous with those resources that need to sustain us through the lingering darkness.

And that is most definitely something to celebrate.

I Spy Something Green. Again.

It’s that most wonderful time of the year again and I am pleased to announce that John and I have a Christmas tree this year. Last year, living in the glorified closet we generously called an “apartment,” we didn’t have room. This year, we will be traveling north for the holiday itself, but I couldn’t bear the idea of only seeing a Christmas tree for two days.

In my family, you see, Christmas starts with the Macy’s parade, which marks the authorization of carols in the house. We eat leftover turkey sandwiches while we’re putting up the decorations. Christmas also happens to not end until, oh, March or so, which is when Dad usually manages to get the lights off the outside of the house. I’m not sure who this bothered more when I was a kid, Mom or our bus driver, but with a childhood tradition like that, I want a tree in the house for at least three weeks.

So we got a tree last week.

Ta da! Actually, the point of this picture was more the air vents. We have forced hot air heating, and after bringing the tree in, we were cold.  Nothing like relaxing under a vent to say, “It’s Christmas!” Right?

The getting of the tree was an epic waiting event, at least in my impatient mind. I had thought about wanting to go out Sunday, but by the time we got back from Maine we were just too tired. Monday night I wanted to go in theory, but that day just raked me over the coals and I didn’t have the energy for it.

Tuesday at work was worse in some ways and I came home wishing we could get the tree for a bit of a pick-me-up. It was also pouring rain. I was crushingly disappointed to the point that I almost dragged John out into the rain, but I had to concede to the fact that having to tie a tree to the roof would suck any joy out of the event.

Wednesday was perfect. Clear and freezing cold. And even thought the world here is still a browning green, the night smelled like the possibility of snow.

The first order of business was to pick out our annual ornament. We went to this place called the Christmas Store. It was only a ten-minute drive, but it took us twenty minutes to find the place because the back entrance to the place is far from obvious. The alternative was getting onto Route 1 and driving for several miles to turn ourselves around, however, so we persisted until my keen sense of direction won through. Cue laughtrack, I know, but honestly–I was the one who figured it out.

We were still slightly baffled when we pulled into the parking lot. The Christmas Store, it turns out, is the seasonal extension of a pool and patio place. You have to give them credit, I suppose, for having good New England business sense. If my family’s anything like typical, the Christmas season is longer than the pool season in this part of the country.

The nature of the store did not influence our peculiar choice of ornament. I picked this up as a joke, wondering aloud at the kind of weird stuff people buy for their tree. Then, as we were looking at it, we were reminded of the nativity octopus from Love, Actually, one of our favorite Christmas films. This in turn reminded me of my favorite line from the film:

“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”

The tree lot was a perfect little New England stand out at the Methodist church, complete with a local man who used to live in our apartment complex. It was the first time since moving to Norwood, I think, that I’ve actually felt connected to the community in some way. I suppose that’s what Christmas is really all about.