Most of our family Christmases were what you’d expect from a middle-class crew, one child counting presents like it was an election, as the bellowing sounds of Christmas music, ranging from Jolie Holland to Run DMC, filled the air, and someone possibly adding green army men or miniature “Star Wars” characters to the nativity scene. All while we sipped homemade hot cocoa. Unfortunately, when you’re in a newly formed merger of two families, holiday time doesn’t always work out the way it was planned.
During the first few Christmases of our newly formed family, my ex became the maniacal, “I AM getting them on Christmas Day,” kind of guy, and my husband’s ex, and her family, felt they owned Christmas morning (I kid you not), and since we weren’t into stirring the crazy pot, we relented and agreed to get the kids back a day or two after Christmas, which left my husband and I alone on Christmas morning.
On the day of that first childless Christmas morning, my husband and I took what was a depressing situation and decided to leave the house with all its decorations and preparations and head out to the Land Between the Lakes to add a new type of picnic to our romantic repertoire – the Christmas Picnic. We bundled up, backpacked-up, headed out to LBL, parked in an isolated area and hiked until we landed somewhere quiet, along the bank, looking out at the glass-still waters. We built a fire, had a picnic, released what we couldn’t control, and regained a new sense of gratitude.
One of best Christmas picnics took place on one of the rare blizzard-like days in our part of the world. I packed up leftover country ham and biscuits, my husband refilled his flask with bourbon and I filled the thermos with coffee. With a field guide-sized Walt Whitman and film loaded into my old camera, we set out for our own kind of Christmas adventure.
Despite warnings and road closings, we went. The side roads were closed at LBL, so we drove on and eventually found a spot at Kenlake State Resort Park. The snow and wind began to calm down as we scouted out the right spot and parked the car. Through 8 or 10 inches of snow, we hauled our stuff down the bank, close to an inlet of the lake. We stopped and looked around, realizing we were in a winter wonderland, a gifted moment of blissful isolation, surrounded by clean, white silence.
We looked at each other and laughed the kind of laugh that leaves nothing but joy in its white wake. We cleared a deep circle in a high snowdrift, found enough dead limbs and sticks to make a fire – which miraculously burned.
As my husband worked on the fire, I wandered my own way, camera in hand, shooting the stillness that surrounded us: the icy lake, a heartbreaking dove that had died alone in the biting wind and snow, action shots of my mate hovering over sticks, blowing breath to sustain an impossible flame. We placed our blankets around the fire and indulged in our Christmas picnic. Somewhere in those moments, my husband read Walt Whitman, and we prayed for our family, reflecting on small highlights from the year and our hopes for the next.
A few years passed, and the children grew old enough to claim where they wanted to spend their Christmas Day and our family Christmas normalcy returned. Now, many years later, all of our children are grown, and we have grandchildren. Because of new, extended-family commitments, we will be having our family gathering a few days after the 25th and I am certain my husband and I will return to our secret tradition, a Christmas picnic, far from the holiday glitz but closer to each other.
(Julie-Anna Carlisle is an artist and photographer. She owns and operates Milkweed Health and Harmony Emporium in downtown Hopkinsville.)