December 25, 2017

Christmas Memories

It's a quiet Christmas day for me this year; hit a movie and Indian food with a friend last night, and spent some time cleaning up a Christmas morning snowstorm, and a dinner invite, if I decide to go, is not until much later today. Family Christmas, such as it is, will be Wednesday the 27th. So, prompted by some reminiscing last night with a friend as well as a xmas eve phone call with my brother, I decided to jot down family Christmas memories.

If there is a family mythology around Christmas, it lies with my mother. Coming from a working class family of 10 without a lot of money to spend at the holidays, mom would relate the story of how, her first xmas out of the house and employed as a nurse, she lavishly bought gifts for all of her family, and was so excited about that - until they were stolen from her car. I think she resolved to never let a Christmas be disappointing from there on; and over-gifting was the order of the day throughout out childhood, and for many years after. I recall my first year out of school, working in Bristol CT, driving my Olds Cutlass Ciera, packed to the gunnels, back to MA for the holidays - replaying my mom's history (without the thievery).

I remember as a child being given some money and being turned loose at Hills Department store to find stuff for the family. I'm fairly certain there were some tacky candles, statues, trinkets, etc. that hung around the house for years because we kids had bought them for mom and dad for xmas.  

We'd do some outdoor decorations - there was an outdoor creche (or to us, a "manger scene") - plastic figurines with a folding wooden shelter and cradle. I vaguely remember them with a interior bulb, but I do not remember power distribution, so I'm guessing we just had a spotlight for the scene. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Wise Men, Shephard, sheep, donkey, and camel. One year the christ child disappeared, traumatizing all of us. We left a little note in the cradle asking whoever took it to return it - it showed up eventually in one of the bushes. There were also large plastic candles by the front door (these I do remember lighting up) and a small plastic santa that lighted up in a front window. There would be some smallish light strings - on a bush or front railing. Dad was never the "get up on a ladder to hang xmas lights" kinda guy.
 
Our family plan, when we were younger, was that dad would procure the tree a few days before the holiday, and put the lights on. But Santa Claus decorated the tree - we'd go to bed with the lighted but otherwise plain tree, and wake up to a full-on Christmas spectacle. Similarly, Santa brought all the gifts - there would be a smattering of present from relatives and neighbors, but the pile of presents under the tree were similarly timed for full effect Christmas morning. I have no idea how those xmas eve's went with mom and dad working together to make a nice christmas morning; but hope it was a romantic and special time for them.

I remember one year that my Aunt and her boyfriend / husband to be came over to spend Xmas eve with my parents; recall getting a knock-off hotwheels set (yellow track instead of orange, and one long piece that unrolled rather than sections) from them which I happily played with before we were herded into our bedrooms.  

Stockings would be hung, traditional red / white with sparkled applied names; later on mom made us stockings out of holiday craft / quilting fabric. Cookies and milk left for santa along with a carrot for Rudolf.

There are probably some photos around, but my folks were taking slide photos back then; so a lot of them are either gone or stashed somewhere.

Part of the process of "no presents until xmas" was that the house was filled with hidden presents - closets, attic, garage, car trunk, laundry hampers, you name it. It became part of the pre-holiday mischief and fun (much to mom's consternation, no doubt) to poke around looking for presents, and to report on any findings to my sister (my brothers being a bit young for it all). Mom would wrap things as soon as she got them, and we became good at surreptitiously opening the end to see if we could figure it out. I can recall a few instances of finding things I thought were for me that did not end up under the tree - always wondered if mom took them back because they had been found. In hindsight, that seems like way too much effort; more likely, they were for cousins, or perhaps our parents teamed up with neighbors or relatives to keep each others presents safe from prying eyes.

The tree was always real in our youth - with incandescent bulbs (which seem like such a horrific fire risk, looking back) and the silver hanging tinsel which clogged the vacuum and the carpet. We had a stash of what seemed liked ancient "Shiny Brite" ornaments, a real mish-mash without any real theme. I think we looked upon folks with artificial, or more themed / crafted trees suspiciously; similarly, one of our relatives always had a silver tree with multi-colored spotlight which seemed a little tacky (but retro cool these days).

Later, when my sister and I out-grew Santa but my brothers were still young, we were welcomed into the Christmas eve tree decorating cult - we'd bicker over the ornaments (there were often multiples so we'd each get a "golf ball", and "icicle" or other special ornament to hang) and mom would supervise the placement, the drape of the ornaments, the balance of the bulb colors, and finally, the tinsel, which had to be placed individually, strand by strand. Long before "Elf on the Shelf" we had a few xmas elves; some hung on the tree, some found homes in various xmas sleighs or decorations throughout the house.

There was something very special about the ornaments, memories put away each year and brought out again. There was a thick felt (probably asbestos, thinking about it) santa with glued on sparkles and a sticker face that dad was said to have made as a child; was always special but especially after dad died in '79. Occasionally an ornament would fall and break,  and we'd mourn the hell out of it, a little piece of our family history slipping away.

After dad died, things started to slip. Mom started to decorate the tree ahead of the holiday to be able to enjoy it longer. Eventually the multi-colored incandescent bulbs gave way to mini lights, and tinsel gave way to garland, and an artificial tree was procured.  As mom aged and we moved out, coming home to set up the tree for mom was a December ritual. The family christmas tree decorations have stayed with mom's condo, purchased by my brother as mom transitioned into assisted living.
  
I'm probably the first to leave the family xmas nest; I had moved to CT and partnered up; my spouse and I were involved in church music so we'd have xmas eve, xmas day, midnight services to be part of (often in different churches and cities), along with her local family. So my family visits would be before or after the official day - we spent a lot of time on the road back then. For years our xmas was later in the day, at my sister's place in central MA. They sold that place a few years back, spending this year in their Florida home. Last year we spent the day with mom at her assisted living home. This year we're all at loose ends - brother who bought mom's condo is spending the holiday with his GF, I'm in CT, my other brother in MA. Neither of us really has the space to host or a drive to travel.

Somewhere along the line, I lost xmas. Part of that is religious - I'm not really all that christian anymore, if anything I kind of push back at christianity as the official state religion. I had a culturally jewish partner for many years - so no real xmas clebration there. I'm sort of outside the loop in terms of friends, family, etc. with small kids. I've been self employed for 20+ years, so there's no office parties or work social activities. And as close to a spiritual community as I have these days is a non-sectarian yoga studio with a pretty heavy Jewish component among the teachers, students, management. So not a lot of Merry Xmas going on there.

But still, there are boxes of xmas ornaments and decorations in my basement closet - and though I've not brought them out in years, I have also not thrown them away. There is still hope....

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