I am taking longer decorating for Christmas in these trying times, touching the ornaments with reverie as I release them from their boxes, listening to their stories. As a newspaper editor for many years, I wrangled a Christmas story every season from one of my reporters or a free-lancer. Sometimes I wrote it myself. Seems I haven't shed the habit.
My mother’s pine cone Christmas tree is nearly worn out. The cones are beaten down and the green bows long since fabulous. In places, the chicken-wire armature shows through, until I plug it with new cones and a fragile tablespoon-sized cardinal left over from another year’s wreath. The most natural of my mother’s decorations, it was my favorite. I could replace all the cones with new ones; I’ve just gathered a peck of them from neighbors’ trees. I could, but I can’t. These old tatterdemalions belong there. They might still carry my mother’s DNA; her hands were on them.
My Christmas memories have my mother’s hands all over them. Christmas came to our house courtesy of Mother Christmas. Mother made Christmas.
My father had nothing to do with Christmas. His only role was to show up Christmas afternoon like a worldly Santa with his sack of presents. One year, after my parents were divorced, his presents were alligator purses for all the women in his life: his aged mother, his ex-wife, his girlfriend, and me. They got matching high heels, too, but I didn’t. Another year, when I was 16, it was my choice of three knee-length mink coats. I’m too young, I told him, though years later I was sorry I refused.
My memories of family Christmas start late, when I am nine, the year mother and I moved out of the upstairs of our restaurant, the Stymie Club, and into a suburban home.
She takes me to buy the tree, and it is after dark when we walk the rows of the pine-aromatic tent to choose our tree. If I returned to the street where we lived, I could walk straight to that nursery.
Assembly is all her job as she is the know-how one in our pair, as well as the mother. She manages the tree stand — the old ring with three securing bolt-arms. But not without saying “Crap!” and I clasp my Catholic hands over my ears.
She strings it with lights, hangs it with ornaments, smears it with angel’s hair — getting the glass fibers in her skin, and bedecks it with tinsel. Our lights are the big, old-fashioned bulbs now coming back into fashion. They are multi-color, until she sees strands of a single color, coordinated with the ornaments, on a girlfriend’s tree. Then our lights are all blue.
Our trees are always live, but that same style-setting friend tries a white-flocked tree and mother picks up the trend the next year. That year, the live tree is an armature for the heavy white flocking sprayed like home-insulation onto it. Its poor branches are very heavy, and it falls once, twice, three times until mother pins it to the ceiling with a length of filament fishing line.
My job is to set up the Nativity scene under the tree, with a little wooden stable and painted plaster of Paris figures: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus; shepherds, sheep and cattle; angels and maji.
That is as fancy as we get until my mother remarried. My stepfather, Gene Schaper, who had worked as a steamfitter and as a florist, was even abler than my mother. He tossed a white sheet under the Christmas tree and spread it with a thin coat of plaster. It dried into a hilly snowscape where I could deploy my crèche as if Bethlehem were Alaska.
Around the holy images my mother piled the presents into towers, perhaps overdoing matters to make up for the coal she’d gotten in her stocking when she was a girl.
Nowadays, I choose a tree to cut in our beloved Bay Weekly Gardener’s Christmas tree farm. This will be the last year, I say again as I have each of the three years since Dr. Frank Gouin’s death. The pickings are slim, but it is a good tree, and we praise it.
We work together to wedge it into its stand, of our own concoction, and I’m in charge of watering it. Bill strings the lights, but we leave off the angel’s hair and tinsel. Then I hang the ornaments, and all the old stories come back to me.
Dear friend, may your holidays be legendary — and 2020 go down in history.