By Liam O’Kennedy for The Bulletin Special Projects
Embracing a new sense of place can enrich beloved traditions
Looking back on them now, at 27 years of age, the Christmases of my youth were characterized by an almost Machiavellian drive for material possessions. I’d start in on my parents early, sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, first assessing how my previous year’s behavior weighed on Santa’s scales of childhood morality, then tuning and adjusting my expectations accordingly. Wish lists were systematically color-coded into stringent tiers of desirability, my top prospects subtly peppered into parental conversations with the tactical finesse of a spy delivering an encoded message behind enemy lines. BB guns don’t buy themselves when you’re 12, after all.
My mom and dad still have those lists back home on Boston’s North Shore, tucked lovingly into a bright red folder. They emerge from the basement every December, along with Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree and that wretched Elf on the Shelf with its manic, watchful gaze. Piece by piece, relic by priceless relic, our house transforms into a spilled-out time capsule of nostalgic holiday memories. Up the cellar steps they march: every Christmas card we’ve ever received, all the homemade tree ornaments, my nana’s collection of miniature, hand painted Dickens Village buildings, complete with horse-drawn carriage and figurine of Tiny Tim upon Bob Cratchit’s shoulders, that I set up for her every year until her death in 2011.
What don’t appear are the things left beneath the tree each year—the action figures and video game consoles and ill-fitting but well-intentioned crewneck sweaters. Those are lost to time, though I’d wager I could at least dig that Red Ryder out of its subterranean nook without too much searching. My priorities were out of whack back then, driven mad as I was by a childhood bloodlust for gadgets and gimcracks. I know now, making a life of my own 2,491 miles away from the town I grew up in, that it was the decorative warmth of our home—and the love of the people in it—that ultimately left their mark on me.
As fall rolled into Bend this year, aspens and tamaracks slowly suffusing with color, that mark began to manifest itself as homesickness. When I moved here in May, the whirlwind of transplanting my life across the country and immediately embarking upon a full-time job search to stave off impending financial ruin allowed me to bury, for a little while, the frightening realization that nothing was ever going to be the same. But autumn, as it turns out, lays bare a man’s soul, the mere crunch of leaves underfoot enough to trigger a flood of East Coast longing. I miss the friends and family there, of course, but I also miss the seasonal flourishes that gave our house a brightness in the face of winter’s approaching dark: faux cobwebs draped across the bushes for Halloween, an electric candle in every window as Advent neared, white lights hung across the facade that stayed up deep into February’s icy grasp.
Caught up in wistfulness for my old home, though, I’d missed the evolution of my new one. My girlfriend, who is as enamored with the approach of chilly weather as anyone I’ve ever met, has been sprucing up our apartment, bit by bit, for weeks. A mottled pumpkin sits next to an espresso-scented candle burning on our living room table, standard hand soaps have been swapped out for more seasonally appropriate cinnamon and apple cider variants, and a new sunflower-shaped doormat greets us on the landing outside. Taking it all in one day, I realize how reluctant I’ve been to let new traditions take shape in an unfamiliar environment. Bend is as beautiful in the fall as anywhere I’ve ever lived, and it’s full of artisans and decor shops that make life easy for a discerning shopper looking to brighten up their home for the holidays.
One chilly Saturday afternoon in September, Anita Bardizian, director of sales at Village Interiors in downtown Bend, showed me around the shop. Founded in Sisters 25 years ago, the company’s new Lava Road location brims with outsized character and inventory.
“Some people decorate just enough to bring the season into the home, and then others decorate every surface available,” Bardizian told me. “It just depends on their own personal style.”
As we chatted, an item caught my eye. It was a rectangular, glass-topped display case about the size of an average framed painting, a healthy sprig of ponderosa pine pinned to the center of its canvas interior. The effect was simple and striking, with its focus an iconic element of the Central Oregon landscape, and the interchangeable nature of the piece meant that the pine sprig could be switched out for goldfields or sand lilies in the springtime.
“Changing out color is an easy thing to do when you have one great piece to use as a basis,” Bardizian noted.
She told me that wooden dough bowls and old-fashioned sugar molds are popular vessels for centerpieces at the moment. Dough bowls are generally rectangular in shape and deep enough to house an abundance of smaller items, while sugar molds are long and narrow with a number of inverted, conical slots. Both look great as the decorative focus of a long table and can be filled with whatever seasonal items you fancy, from persimmons to pine cones.
A few weeks later I was sitting across from Patricia Julber, owner of Complements Home Interiors in Bend, talking to her about her philosophy on holiday decorating.
“More is more. There’s no such thing as too much for the holidays,” she said. “You’re in the darkest days of winter and so bling and fun and putting out your best, whatever that looks like, is always good.”
As colder weather looms, Julber said, look to replace tired old sofa pillows and throws and replenish your floral arrangements with more wintry fare, such as amaryllis and holly. Saturated color and luxurious fabrics bring warmth to the dark days of winter.
She also let me in on a secret: for just five dollars, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to cut down your own Christmas tree. It’s an old-fashioned idea, and I can almost picture myself trekking out to some remote grove in search of the perfect noble fir for my little eastside apartment, in a city I’ve come to embrace, 2,491 miles away from home.