Most years my holiday spirit kicks in on Nov. 1. I dive in headfirst and don’t look back till we’ve rung in the new year. That is, until last year. Last year I didn’t even put up a tree, but rather just a few rogue decorations halfheartedly placed around the house. And I own a vintage aluminum tree from the ’50s complete with color wheel and a spinning stand that plays a rickety but lovely old version of “Silent Night.” I alternate year to year between real and vintage, but last year the corner of my living room was noticeably empty.

It was the first Christmas since my sweet Italian grandmother, Nana Emily, had died. Her passing marked the end of an era, as she was the last of the “elderly relatives” who helped anchor my holiday memories in the green- and red-colored past that full-bodied nostalgia provides. So there was that.

But that wasn’t the only reason I was off last year. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School just 11 days before Christmas was both unbelievable and yet painfully real, and how could anyone with even a faint heartbeat not be affected by it? (The one-year anniversary is Saturday, and my thoughts are very much with the families and that entire community.)

And I’m sure there were a number of other reasons I was just plain off last year. As each year passes, the gap grows between the childhood memories I cling to of Christmases past. There’s the reality of having some of those people gone, and the fact that I am not a child anymore and haven’t been one in what feels like a million years. But here’s the thing: I refuse to lose that childhood spirit, that pure joy that arrives usually around the time of the first snow, when I get caught up in the hustle and bustle, the holiday parties, the mad shopping dashes and the scent of cinnamon, peppermint, orange and pine.

In other words; I want my holiday spirit back. I need it back. And so I’m in the midst of making it happen for myself. I’m sharing this journey-of-sorts with fellow bah-humbuggers out there with the invitation to find your cheer, too.

My own journey began at Victoria Mansion, where I took in this year’s holiday exhibition. Each room of the glorious 1858 house was decorated by a local designer with the international theme of “Joy to the World.” Among the countries represented are France, Spain, Japan, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany and Ireland. The good old USA is represented by a New England display complete with plenty of red cardinals. Each room is gorgeous and alive with simple and intricate, playful and elegant decor. From fruit-trimmed trees to an elaborate nativity scene, Christmas is captured in all its multicultural glory.

I loved every minute of it, but what really jingled my bells was when I caught sight of the upstairs “Dressing Room.” This display represented Russia and was created by Sara Gorstein of S. Scollay Custom Floral Design in Portland. I took one look at it and started smiling brighter than all of the sparkling lights I had seen since arriving. Amongst an understated display of trees and hanging red bulbs, Gorstein had constructed a folk art display that I made her promise she would always hang on to. She and her team sculpted and hand-painted Matryoshka (aka Russian Nesting) dolls out of of a papier mache-type material. It is a striking display, and the tallest doll stands about 4 feet high. Gorstein saw how excited I was and let me go behind the rope for a photo. I carefully crouched among the five beautiful dolls and the trees, and I’m still grinning about it.

You too can experience “Joy to the World” through Jan. 5. (victoriamansion.org)

YULE BE GLAD TO SEE THESE

Contuining on my poinsettia-lined path, I followed my heart into the Old Port for a stop at Videoport and was pleased to see a special section of Christmas-related DVDs. Scanning the array, I was reminded of some of my favorites and knew that at the bare minimum I would have to watch “Love Actually” and “Christmas Vacation,” and hopefully also will find time for a little Jimmy Stewart and Ralphie.

I was also reminded of another gem that is easy to let slip through the snowy cracks of holiday movie merriment. Remember “Scrooged?” It’s with Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Bobcat Goldthwait and Carol Kane, among others. It’s from 1998 but still stands up as among the best the season has to offer. Murray’s “Frank Cross” character is as mean and heartless as they come until he’s caught in a nightmarish – and hilarious – version of “A Christmas Carol.” There’s so much to love about this film, but for me, it comes down to Murray’s inspirational speech at the end. “It’s Christmas Eve, it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. … For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve and if you waste that miracle you’re gonna burn for it – I know what I’m talking about. You have to do something, you have to take a chance. You do have to get involved. There are people that are having trouble making their miracle happen.”

SIGNS OF THE TIME

The next thing I did to fan the flames of holiday spirit was to perform a random act of silly kindness. Every morning during my walk from where I park my car to the Press Herald newsroom at One City Center, I walk by a local restaurant. Even when it’s super early, like 7:30 a.m., I see a few people in there through the window hard at work making bread and such. It’s been two and a half years now that I’ve been walking by this place and I always glance in but never wave or smile. I’m usually too preoccupied with what I need to do first when I get to my desk, or am only half-awake trudging by with my coffee. But that’s no excuse. Waving hello and cracking a smile are quick and painless and they go a long way.

It occurred to me what I had to do. I made some signs, stopped at The Cookie Jar in Cape Elizabeth for cookies, and one morning last week I did it. I acted out my variation of a scene from “Love Actually” in which a lovestruck fella declares his feelings for his friend by holding up sweet signs as he stands on her doorstep.

There was one guy working when I stopped and held up my first sign. His expression was one of slight confusion, which soon gave way to a smile, so I proceeded. About a minute or so later, I held up my last sign and then he opened the door. He told me his name was Mike and I flung a hug on him without warning. Bless his heart for humoring me. I told him to enjoy the cookies and was on my way.

The entire episode lasted a mere handful of minutes, but days later I’m still grinning, Christmas spirit running through my veins. I know that now, from time to time, I’m gonna look up and wave as I walk by. Maybe I’ll even crack a smile.

May you find your own path to fill your heart with the holiday spirit. Whether you find it in a church, with a mall Santa, by helping out a homeless person, singing an off-tune Christmas carol, decorating cookies or wrapping yourself in mistletoe and holly, you can make it happen for yourself.

I leave you with the immortal words from “Christmas Vacation” said by Mr. Clark W. Griswold: “We’re gonna have the hap hap happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny (expletive) Kaye.”

Aimsel Ponti can be contacted at 791-6455or at:

aponti@pressherald.com