And so this is Christmas….
Charlie Brown might have settled for that tiny simple green pine tree rather than one of those garish white or pink flocked Christmas trees for sale in his neighborhood lot, but I kind of miss them. Miss seeing the numerous pop-up tree sellers that appeared on every corner during my childhood in the late ‘60s. When the only fake trees available were those silver metallic ones that would electrocute you if you hung lights on it and that now sell for big money on eBay as vintage antiques for the mid-century modern crowd pretending it is 1966 again. And who can blame them as this year cannot end soon enough for most of us.
I do complain like most people when holiday decorations start creeping onto store shelves around Halloween, but I do love the run up to Christmas. We have lived in our current home for 25 years and have a closet dedicated just to boxes of Christmas trimmings. Since my earliest memory, Christmas shopping on December 26th was a big deal shopping for half price lights and next year’s Christmas cards at 75% off. When my son got his PH.D. and moved so far away, there was no reason for me to shop after Christmas sales any more. Who needs wrapping paper when there are no children living with me?
Few people even mail Christmas cards anymore, my girlfriends with their cute Santa designed missives and nativity ones from my older family members used to fill my mail box. But all those relatives are dead now. My friends and co-workers seem to drool over how big a number their friends list is on Facebook, but before the computer age of email, I addressed my Christmas cards as early as Pearl Harbor Day to then anxiously await to see how big the colorful cornucopia of cards grew as I taped each day’s haul from the mailbox to a strip of fat red ribbon attached down one wall next to the television. Now even I have dropped half my list and the other half have dropped me. Just a handful of cards stand on my fireplace mantel this year.
As a teenager in the ‘70s, I loved the excuse of running an errand for some forgotten item needed for that early afternoon Christmas Day ham dinner. The only stores open in those days was either the liquor store or 7-11, either just far enough away to sneak in a cigarette or a joint during that escape from the folks for that freedom run for a bag of ice or gallon of overpriced milk. For years now, even stores like Target are open on the holiday itself and I can shop for milk or ice all day long on Christmas Day if I like at the regular grocery store on any street in town.
My grandparents always scanned the TV Guide to ensure I saw those Christmas cartoons during my childhood. Later, even as rebellious as I fancied my teenage self, I still watched my childhood favorites on television every year starting with The Great Pumpkin right on through the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade. Hell, I didn’t even need to be stoned to shiver at the sound of Boris Karloff’s narration of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch or tap my foot to Burl Ives or Jimmy Durante singing the theme of those other Christmas cartoon staples starring Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the bullied reindeer. I made sure my son had the same experience over and over since by then we could buy all those shows on videotape to watch anytime we wanted. I still remember the thrill of finding a rare copy of my favorite Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol to watch with my son as I reveled in my memories of my own childhood.
I still have fond memories from fourth grade when we learned the German version of O Christmas Tree and can even remember the beginning part of the song. O Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum……When a local radio station switches to only Christmas music during the month of December, I add it to my car’s radio tuner buttons. As a Beatles fan, I know it is truly the holiday season the first time the station plays John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) and I almost weep over the idea that we have now substituted several conflicts to send soldiers to rather than just the one in Vietnam Lennon was singing about. I guess some American traditions never change.
My grandmother who raised me, loved her 7-foot Christmas tree loaded down with miniature toys collected over the years lit by a thousand multi-colored lights I’d put up with her after the Thanksgiving dishes were washed. When my son was a toddler, she told me I should take her tree and decorations to replace my own old fake tree with its sagging branches held up by green thread I tied to the branches above and turned to the wall to hide. Of course, I told her no. I figured she was just looking after me as usual, aware of my husband’s and my limited finances since I’d opted to stay home after giving birth, breastfeeding versus buying formula and foregoing disposables for cotton diapers I even hung on a clothes line outside to save on electricity. Nana loved her tree to much; I had accepted many things from her over the years, but I just could not take her beloved tree and decorations.
Her collection of toys was exquisite. Not your standard wooden painted toys bought by the dozen at the dime store. Nana’s habit of hanging out at malls and high-end department stores, especially at those after Christmas sales, had allowed her to amass many unusual tchotchkes to hand on her huge tree, like an articulated set of all the Wizard of Oz characters hand painted in Germany. My son was old enough now to appreciate their beauty without the temptation to pull them off the tree and possibly destroy them, but I could not deprive my grandmother of something she loved so much.
Imagine my shock when the very next year my sister ended up with Nana’s beloved bevy of baubles and her tree. I couldn’t even fault Nana when in confusion I tried to fathom how my horrible, manipulative sister neither of us particularly cared for ended up with the tree and all its ornaments. “But I begged you to take them the last two years,” Nana said, and she was right. I was an idiot. Nana had grown tired in her advanced years and wanted to simplify her life. She switched that year to a small three-foot tree whose branches folded up neatly after its simple colored glass balls were stored back into their corrugated boxes.
My son was 13 a decade later when Nana died suddenly that September. Three months later, I sent Christmas cards to all her surviving friends whose entry had not been crossed out in her Christmas card address book with its columns to keep track over the years of whether one had received a holiday card from each friend. As her executrix and first grandchild, I understood my responsibility to let her friends from decades past as to her death even though most of the names I remembered growing up had been crossed out. The veteran’s cemetery where we placed her ashes alongside my beloved grandfather was far out of town. But for the next few years at the beginning of each December, I drove out there to leave a small tree I decorated with two strands of colored lights that lit up with battery power.
As I grew older, I began to understand how Nana’s love of the holidays had waned. All that work putting the tree together, let alone decorating it and the rest of the house became a chore rather than the fun it had been for me while my son was growing up. My feeling of childhood wonder for Christmas had faded. The ceramic Victorian village lit up on my hallway entry table was such a lot of work. With our son living his life as an adult far from our home, my husband had no one to put up the little white lights the two of them would string through our trees and bushes every year. Besides we’d had an electrical fire in our house ten years ago that displaced us for five months and when we got to move back into our house and unpack our belongings that had been in storage all that time I fearfully threw out from all our Christmas lights with their “Made in China” origins.
When the Borders bookstore near my house went out of business years ago after the holidays, I purchased a small white foot tall Christmas tree that had been used as a display on a shelf. I decorated it with small green glass balls mixed with the same balls in a bright blue to match the mid-century modern stark furnishings I had redone my house in. My old Victorian style red and green Christmas decorations just don’t go with my home’s new look. I bought a plain blue and a plain green stocking to hang over the fireplace and a modern looking Dr. Seuss-looking Santa to stand on one end table. And how easy now that I slip a trash bag over the tree like some kidnap victim, balls and all, and stash the thing away in a small cupboard ’til next year. To honor Nana the tree topper is a small silver angel ornament I found when cleaning out her apartment when she died. That was when I lost my fear of death figuring at least there would be that chance of being with my beloved grandparents once again.
Because my son just had his first child this year, I asked if he wanted any of the Christmas decorations he’d grown up with or even some of the items I had that had belonged to Nana to put out for his son. No, he wasn’t interested in having me bring even a single thing when I visited that autumn. I guess I’ll donate the contents of my Christmas closet to Goodwill since my husband and I will retire in a few years and downsize. I’ve already downsized Christmas. Its been years since I opened the boxes of skeletons and haunted houses I used to put out for my favorite holiday, but I will keep the handmade costumes I sewed my son each year when he was little, preferring to dress him in cotton flannel rather than those horrible plastic costumes sold in stores even back then. Maybe my grandson will be my chance to enjoy the holidays once more.