The shine of a Christmas tree in the boughs decorated with shiny balls and silvery lights lit the child’s face as nothing had done before. Chilly temperatures in the house made seeing a tree inside a logical thing, as the child had just learned cold. One year of age and just twenty days more and all of the learning that had occurred until that day melded together to make Christmas a mystical experience. The cautionary voices of mother and grandmother as they mentioned that she should look, but not touch, gave the child the first knowledge of something precious that couldn’t be grasped. Christmas would be a fleeting moment in her development. As soon as the mystery was grasped, it was also gone. Two weeks in the eyes of a child, and Christmas would be a compounding memory each year. The grandmother’s tree, decorated with family ornaments from 21 years of marriage, filled with family history and time would sit in the child’s eyes out of focus and just out of reach but remembered distantly. A message about a baby. About animals. That was my first Christmas.
Two years later, another child came to learn of the mystery of Christmas. Another one year old, and a little more, stood beneath the tree decorated with sugar cookies because the young couple was making do with what they had. Now there were three children, and a young couple trying to be independent and having none of the money for extras. The sounds of carols from a record player filled the air, and the youngest toddler heard the admonition that he should look but not touch. The cookies hung so temptingly. So he stood with his hands behind his back and bit off all of the feet as mother made a dinner and father went out to seek a Christmas present with only ten dollars in his pocket. He sought it at a hardware store, and finding something he remembered from his Christmas’s long past, a sled with bright red runners. The cost, too great, but he looked at it longingly. The spirit of Christmas filling his eyes, and seen by a salesman, was suddenly his as the man gave him the sled for seven dollars instead of twenty. He would play in the snow with his wife and children, pulling the sled down snow covered sidewalks. All of them young and happy in the moment, then it was gone. But the sled remained for many years, a testament to the spirit of sharing.
Another year, and baby three arrived. Christmas in the blue eyes at only four months of age, now living with Grandmother and Granddad as the world changed. Korea was over, Vietnam was foretold in the news. But in the home, with it’s generations, life was safe and beautiful. This year the cookies hung above the little boys head, just out of reach, except when the oldest would lower the branches just so, entertaining himself and his brother. The toys the children received gratefully disappearing into memory, a doll, a truck, a book or two, all to be well loved and used.
Another year, and the house stood on the banks of the Mississippi, and the newest edition to the family being a parakeet who flew into the open window that summer and stayed for over ten years. Uncle Ned liked the tree and the lights. This year cookies came from a Swedish bakery and were placed in a clear jar only to be opened by the mother and father. Large cookies tasting of peanut butter, sugar, chocolate chips and the mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies tempting good behavior and giving instant reinforcement when that behavior was given with ungrudging enthusiasm. It was the first tree that was in focus for me. I had received my glasses that summer. It is the first tree I remember, the clarity of vision adding mysticism to the experience. This Christmas too was fleeting. But I was now old enough to know that there would be more.
The next Christmas in another grandparent’s house, for my Grandmama needed help from my parents in managing all of the daily tasks. The room was dark, but lit by the tree. Mom never had enough time to do all of the things she needed to do. Now she was no longer working forty hours a week, instead she was making all of our clothes, cooking and baking all of the meals, cleaning the house, playing with us, reading with us, showing her competence but feeling graded at every moment.
I missed a memory the next year. The only thing I remember is singing a hymn about Jesus and the animals. “Jesus our brother kind and good, was humbly born in a stable rude and the friendly beasts around him stood.” I sang that song until June. Over and over, my poor mother must have been driven nuts by it. I started school the next year at 4 1/2. I now think that my mother must have sent me early so that she could have a break. With four babies in under five years, her hands were full and she never complained or rejected us. She did need her own place to be totally happy and that happened as we started school.
The year after, we moved into our own house a few blocks away. Those years are filled with the memory of my brother making my father laugh as he pretended to be a goat head butting him in the knees. The trees got taller. We accumulated shiny balls and figures of ancient Santas, tinsel carefully cherished from year to year. My mother made incredible ornaments from egg cartons. She made tall angels to sing in a choir out of bottles and styrofoam balls, gold paint and old sheets. There was nothing cheap about the way they looked, gleaming as they did on the one book case we owned. She made a sled out of cardboard boxes to hold presents and keep them tidy and the tree safe. We were given an apple and an orange each Christmas by Santa once our stockings were big enough to hold them. There was always a candy cane. And Robert Shaw and Harry Simone came to symbolize the way Christmas should be sung about. One year, four stockings arrived from my Aunt Diana, and pajamas the next, a start of new traditions. We went to the Swedish Institute and learned of the tale of St. Lucia. Red candle holders turned up sometime in the first few years. Ribbons hung from the curtains, in gold and green combinations and splendar.
Mom did most of the work getting ready. Dad would put the lights on the tree and we would decorate. Dad would work. He made ice for the skating rinks, leaving in the early morning to put new ice on the rinks for Christmas. Then skates arrived one year, left over from other children who no longer fit them, Dad brought them home and we learned to skate. Granddad came to skate with us. I skated on my bottom more than my feet, eventually switching to rubber boots so I could stay up. It took me years to learn. So many Christmases. We lost my grandmothers early, and missed them each year.
My mother would make clothes and toys for us by hand. She would make new clothes for the dolls that my sister and I owned. And when I discovered that she was the spirit of Mrs. Santa, she enlisted my help. She and my older brother made me a doll house from a cardboard box that looked so real and was the dream I had thought I would never receive. My mother was Christmas. For us, Christmas was the moment when we could all be happy, safe, and full of joy. We were a lot like the Whos down in Whoville. Somewhere in the early years in the green house, we became recipients of gifts from the VFW. That had been a tight year, and we were invited to a Children’s Show. Every child there received a gift by name from Santa. I wonder now if it hadn’t been part of the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. No matter, the VFW make Christmas real. My older brother got a lock which had a gun hidden inside it that worked with caps. My baby brother got a gum ball machine, which was also a savings bank. We helped him eat all of the gum balls, only to feel chagrin later in life for having done so. My sister and I got dolls, although I don’t remember any more. I remember sitting in that room feeling special and valued. We didn’t feel like poor church mice even when money was so very tight. Then there was the Christmas that the stockings hung empty, and my father said we had not been good, Santa hadn’t come. Oh the tears welled up in our eyes, and just before we all cried boohoo, gifts were discovered, too large to fit in the stockings. Oh such joy. We had been good, as good as normal children could be. I had a stove and refrigerator that I loved until I went to College and played with constantly with my dolls. It was just the right size.
And I grew, lean and uncoordinated, very slowly, but woke up one day knowing that the time of family celebrations being over was coming soon, and not wanting them to go. But they did. I went to college and learned more of the music of the season, carefully taught by teachers who believed that the music was more than for enchanting children. I learned of nuns, and sacrifices, and brought home that knowledge for two weeks of trees and changing brothers and sisters.
Then I was gone, living on the west coast, and rejoining once more a Christmas at my Granddad’s home, which fleetingly sped past as only two days was allowed for my visit. I was gone again, this time to the East Coast where Christmas became the time I was to be married. The ceremony held in Minneapolis, just a few days after Christmas, so full of family and time that I could barely grab the holiday. I remember that it was cold, -5 degrees in the morning, and then warm 45 degrees by noon. The wedding hung over the holiday and mixed the two so in my mind that I have never been able to separate them.
After that, I had my own children. Two years apart they acted like twins by the time the boy was four and the girl was two. We had trees and presents and travelled from one family to the next for family dinners. We now had three family dinners, one with my husband’s grandparents, one with my parents and one with my Aunt Diana and Uncle Herb. The first four years were as rough for us as had been for my parents. Poor in cash but rich in grownups who realized I had bitten off more than I could chew. They provided me with stability and the knowledge that life would provide us with enough speed bumps as to make it interesting. My focus at Christmas became the tree. I could never equal what my mother had done for us, although I tried. I baked gingerbread cookies for the tree, but no one nibbled on the feet. I had learned the tale of my brother and took precautions. Each year we added ornaments that we made, candy canes made of shiny plastic beads carefully sequenced in patterns. We made bread dough ornaments. We colored paper chains and threaded cranberries and popcorn. I made some dresses for my daughter but was nothing like my mother whose clothes had turned out perfectly. I worked. I, like my mother, had gone back to school when my kids reached an age where they could understand that I needed to do homework. They were in second grade and kindergarden. My poor mother had had to wait until we were in high school. Somehow she had managed all of the decorating, shopping, baking, cooking, and never missed a step. Me, I stumbled all over the place, but my heart was in the right place even if my skills weren’t.
My father died when my son was 14, and my daughter ll 3/4. It was 1995, and I remember insisting that mom come down and stay with us. I was teaching by then. She filled the day with joy, even though her heart was broken. In the years that followed, she began packing up Christmas and moving it to a place further away in her closet. It wasn’t the same without my dad. It wasn’t the same for me either. He had taken such joy in what my mother had created for Christmas, and that joy must have been the reason she continued to be so creative for so many years.
One winter my family from Minnesota came to Virginia for the holiday. My older brother, my little sister, her husband and two children, my younger brother and my mom all fit into our house in one fell swoop. We went to Mount Vernon and Williamsburg. I was informed that I was the favorite aunt because my lap was cushy by one of my nieces.We had the tree and a feast. It felt like the old days in the green house for me. I gave my little brother a ha’ penny, but he missed the symbolism. It didn’t matter, I got the message. I wanted my family to know that they were loved. Mom took photographs, as mom always does.
Then my children grew. In 1998 the first MS attack that we can document with a certainty occurred and I slowed down. I couldn’t do the things I loved to do. My children stepped up and helped with the tree becoming more and more competent each time. Popcorn and Cranberries were no longer on the tree. Mom donated some of her ornaments and the cats took the tree out that year, as cats are wont to do. They broke and it made me sad, but still the tree was reassembled and the holiday went okay. After that, my kids were grown and mom started going out to Minnesota for the holidays. We each got her for two or three days, but the season seemed fragmented without her.
One Christmas Eve, we had finished the tree that night, my husband having to work, and the kids had a surprise for me. We had been married 24 years, and that evening my husband brought me an engagement ring. I guess he figured out he wanted me to hang around. Time sped up.
When my son returned from the Navy, he brought a wife. She had troubles, but her children were sweet. We had a tree and took the kids to all of the places children should go when they visit a grandparent. It was only for that one Christmas, but we were exhausted at the end. I lost ten pounds that holiday. It was a nice perk.
One year, we had a Charlie Brown tree that the kids found and took the bottom branch of the tree in the back year from. They wrapped a blue sheet around the bottom and it had two ornaments, one from Charlie Brown that we had had, and a new Charlie Brown ornament from my dear friend Ana.
The next Christmas and those following found my family working to keep the holidays of Halloween and Christmas according to tradition. Until present day, we struggled along as best we could. But this Christmas arrived on my birthday with all of the bells and whistles and I feel that joy that I must have felt when I was one and the tree was lit with magic. This Christmas coming in a week will be our best. My husband took a week off. We plan to go to an arboretum to see lights. The tree is up and I made handmade ornaments to add to the collection. My daughter-in-law will be staying for the holiday. My son has taken a few days off work. And the cooperation between my two children is something new and something I wanted to see. My son-in-law has been putting up with all of this Christmas stuff for me, even though he doesn’t like the holiday. My father-in-law will be here. There is a new baby due in the family soon, my niece is expecting her first any day now.
There is a dark part to this Christmas, one I don’t generally talk about and try not to let it take over my holiday. I’m not sure how many more times I will have to celebrate the holiday. My father’s side of the family dies at about 65 and that is 6 years away. I know, I shouldn’t dwell on such a thing and I should take one day at a time and be glad for the times I have. But really, 65 is way to young to die. I’ve just figured out how to play the game here. It’s all gone by so fast. It’s the hospital stay that brought this on. But I will blink and block these darker thoughts for now. I’ve got what I wanted most for Christmas. I have a family. I wish mom could be here but she’s jet setting around the world as she likes to do. She’ll stay long enough to make sure that things are still Christmas and move to the next sibling. I’ll have her back soon enough. I know, I have a book for her present and she is a bibliophile. She can’t resist a book. Neither can I.
I’m off to watch Christmas shows and create some presents from “Stuff” I have lying around that needs to be created with. I want to leave something beautiful for each of my family to glow for many more years.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays…remember the light.