I cracked a new puzzle-assembling personal record last night—12 hours for a 1,000 piece Charles Wysocki puzzle. When assembling on the table, it typically takes me an entire weekend. Assembling on the floor typically takes all week. I admit this print is stylistically the simplest of the Wysockis I’d assembled before. Titled “Victorian Christmas”, it is a puzzle I’d purchased online earlier this summer but hadn’t put it together until now.
With Christmas around the corner and last night’s white wash, it helped me to meditate on the Christmas holidays and the reasons I love it so. I am sure that before coming to America, my family had never celebrated Christmas before. But since the celebrations were so much a fabric of our community, it was easily adopted into our family life, too (this and Thanksgiving). At school, we had arts and crafts activities leading us up to both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and these were the times we had school vacation. My parents worked at places that offered a choice of a free turkey for Thanksgiving or a free ham for Christmas. Between the two of them, we were able to celebrate both holidays with a full meal.
I remember the plastic tree we’d pull out of its box and assemble, the loose tinsel, the gold and silver garlands we wrapped and wrapped around the tree, loading as many of our ornaments onto it as would fit. The result was a gaudy, glowing cone of foil and glass. I loved it. As children, the task of tree making was ours, and we had freedom to trim it as we pleased, which usually was over-the-top. My parents wrapped and stashed the presents under the tree as my brother and I covertly stole and ate candy canes off its branches. Christmas morning, there was no fakery about a Santa Claus—we knew these were our parents’ gifts to us, and we opened them with abandon. I don’t remember many of those presents to this day, except that my brother had once received pajamas that looked like a karate outfit (we were big into Kung-Fu), and that I once received cassettes of the latest Michael Jackson and Madonna albums (the first and last time I believed my parents “got me”). Christmas in my childhood was about being lazy and indulgent and about everyone being okay with that.
Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving was the gathering celebration, whether at our house or someone else’s—this was the big banquet with friends and family. In traditional Lao style, the party was open invitation, and though there was turkey, we feasted as we would at any party, complete with sticky rice, green papaya salad and lots and lots of hot peppers. Someone would make a batch of mashed potatoes and gravy, for the kids that wanted the American treat. But the rest of it was turkey punh, turkey laarb, etc, etc. The common holiday gave the small Lao community in Southern Vermont another occasion to come together.
As I grew on my own, I found many of my friends rebelling against the commercialism of both celebrations. They were disgusted with the guise of seasonal cheer that masked a serial selfishness. They were worn down by the glitz and the glut. I tried to adopt their world view, during times when my grief was debilitating, when my circle of friends was the size of a penny, when debt erased any future dreams. But I could not. Every year, I was invited to more dinners than I could eat, more parties than I could attend, and I received cards and letters from people I’d neglected.
I had been on the receiving end of charity more times than I care to admit. But this was not the anonymous charity of a distribution at the food pantry, or the free lunch line. This was the charity of heart that only those who know you can extend. A kind word, a songbook, a place at the table. This was small town neighborliness.
This looking after one another way of being is the sort of ethic I imagine underlies each of Charles Wysocki’s Americana paintings. “Victorian Christmas” delightfully crams all the wonderful bustle of the season into an image of a joy-filled interconnectedness. It’s a romanticized version of America, but it’s still one that I hang on to: one where children can be children and where the nuanced duties of adulthood are carried without complaint.
It’s the reason that the only puzzles I assemble are those of Charles Wysocki’s—they put me at ease. I am brought back to the dream that still sustains me. When I am under extreme stress , I puzzle. I make sense of a dream. I am fortunate that Charles Wysocki left a long catalog of puzzles for me to choose from.