Memento Mori Christmas Nesting

Winter is not my favorite season, but since it constitutes at least three months of every year (a quarter of my life!), I am always looking to change my attitude. In Scandinavia, people embrace these limitations and practice the concept of hyggae, or a focus on all things cozy. Thick, warm sweaters and blankets, hot drinks by the fire, plenty of time to read and connect with family. So I’m letting my Christmas nesting urges go crazy this year. How many Christmas movies can I watch? What corner of the house can I brighten with a Christmas-scape? 

Winter also brings death and decay. Cold. Darkness. As I’ve explored before, sometimes the best way to deal with a seemingly negative situation is to embrace the dark side. So alongside the Christmas-nesting, I’m incorporating the concept of memento mori, or a reminder of death and the temporary nature of life. Memento mori has been around for much of human history. It was especially popular in still lifes in the Dutch Golden Age. While they lavished their skills on images of costly flowers, glassware or food, the painters often included reminders that all of these luxuries are fleeting. One of my favorites is Clara Peeters’ Still Life of Fish and Cat (after 1620). The fish glisten, gaping in a bowl and the shrimp curl into bewhiskered balls, all waiting for the feast… which is likely to be enjoyed by the cat, not the viewer. Just when your mouth is watering, the treat is stolen from you.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, after 1620; Oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Balthasar Van der Ast’s Basket of Fruits (c. 1622) offers a delicious array (most of which would have been hard to come by in 17th-century Holland), but upon closer inspection, they are already rotting. The peach peeking from behind the plate is pock-marked, and the discolored areas dot the pear in the foreground. 

Balthasar Van der Ast, Basket of Fruits (c. 1622) open access image courtesy National Gallery of Art

I combined my Christmas nesting urge with some projects to remind me of the temporary nature of life – and of winter. Here are a few ways I’m finding beauty in the decay. 

Holiday garlands

First, I drew on both the still life tradition and the domestic Christmas traditions of garlands from foods. I love the concept of domesticity – as long as it’s on my own terms and no one is expecting me to do it. This year, I dried orange and grapefruit slices and bought a pile of cranberries. I made miniature wreaths for the windows and a garland for the mantle. The drying process produced some burned spots in the grapefruits and some of the cranberries are already rotting. I’m embracing the decay. Life is not perfect and objects don’t last. But neither will these cold, dark days. 

Fall & winter bouquets

Bouquets are normally an opportunity to celebrate the beauty of spring and summer. But fall and winter offer their own type of beauty. As the leaves were falling, I took a walk around my yard and snipped some red leaves, bittersweet and a few remaining hydrangeas. The resulting bouquet was spectacular. And only lasted for two days. It both saddened and delighted me. What a precious gift that I was able to enjoy this bouquet for the two days that it existed. I was one of the few people in the entire history of this planet who had the privilege of experiencing this exquisite bouquet. Now that it’s gone, I have the memory, but also the inspiration to try again. It will get harder as it gets colder, but that’s just another challenge worth accepting. 

Old Christmas cards

Somewhere along the way, I became the proud owner of an old book of collected Christmas cards. Probably because I’m one of the only people in my family who is still a sucker for collecting all of these “family heirlooms”. My husband is not convinced they need to be kept, but they do bring me joy, so I continue to  rearrange them each time we do a deep cleaning. Based on the artwork and salutations, I believe it is from the ‘40s or ‘50s and was my great aunt Esther’s, my grandfather’s sister-in-law. The artwork is beautiful and the sentiments are quaint and evoke what I can pretend was a simpler time. It is also likely that the senders and receiver are all dead, so each time I look at them, I can simultaneously hold delight at their beauty and ennui for the passing of their original sender and recipient. What a delicious combination. 

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