Since it’s the Christmas season, I thought I would share an essay I wrote a few years ago.
This essay was my first to get published and it remains one of my favorites.
While flipping through the cable channels the other day, I came across a rerun of a Martha Stewart Christmas special. In case you’re not familiar with Martha Stewart she is the homemaking maven who believes everyone has the ability (and time) to garden, decorate, cook, bake, sew, build and landscape on a daily basis. The particular episode I stopped to watch was called “Martha Stewart’s Joys of Christmas Past.” Martha’s idea was to recreate the nostalgic Christmas of childhood. She was standing in a lovely room with a roaring fire in the fireplace. The lilting sound of a choir singing Christmas carols filtered through the window and at the center of this blissfully domestic Christmas scene stood a beautifully thriving evergreen tree with hand painted family heirlooms hanging from its full branches. It was about this time that I realized this perfect storybook Christmas scene in no way resembled any past Christmas I had ever known. Slowly, as these thoughts tumbled around my head, Martha blurred and in my mind, I was transported back to the Christmases of my childhood.
To begin with, when I was a child I didn’t know that Christmas trees were supposed to be freshly cut evergreens. I thought all Christmas trees were huge silver monstrosities that came out of a cardboard box stored under the stairs in the basement. You see, when I was born the latest trend to hit suburban households all over the country was the aluminum Christmas tree. I don’t know where this trend started, but I can only assume that the Russians had something to do with it since once the tree was assembled it bore a striking resemblance to Sputnik.
It was 1963 when my family moved out of the old house where we had lived in Detroit and moved into a new built house in the suburbs. I was in first grade then and that Christmas season my class made tree ornaments that we were to bring home and hang on our trees. Of course the ornaments were made out of the usual holiday trimmings, cardboard, glue, gold spray paint, glitter and macaroni. We cut star shapes out of the cardboard, glued uncooked elbow macaroni onto it; spray painted it gold and while the paint was still wet tossed a few handfuls of glitter on top. Since I used an entire box of macaroni on my star when it was finished it weighed about two-and-a-half pounds. It ended up looking like some mutant starfish from a bad sci-fi movie, but my mother, like all mothers are supposed to, thought it was beautiful.
When it was finally time to put up the Christmas tree that year I could hardly wait to add my new ornament.
“Come on Dad, can’t we put up the tree now” I whine.
“Not until after the news” my father mutters as he sits back at the kitchen table to light up a cigar. I can’t understand why he isn’t as excited as I am. It isn’t as if he has to go out into the frigid night to bring home a pristine, snow covered pine tree that smells sweetly of wintergreen. No, he just has to bring that narrow cardboard box up from the basement. Luckily the news and the cigar end simultaneously so dad can now retrieve the tree from the basement. My mother stands at the top of the stairs directing my father as he tries to balance the box precariously over his head.
“Joe, don’t scrape the walls!” my mother yells in her most festive holiday voice. And when my father finally sets the box down in the middle of the living room and opens it, the silver reflection from the aluminum tree is so bright he ends up with a tanned face that will surely last until New Years.
While dad tries to get the aluminum pole that holds the tree erect to stand straight and perfectly centered in the living room window, my mother and I unwrap the ornaments. My mom never trusts my dad to bring the ornament box upstairs. She takes on this task herself because the ornaments are old and fragile. Many of them had belonged to her parents when they lived in Italy. The ornaments are kept in an old stained cardboard box that always feels slightly damp from age. The flaps are so worn from years of use that they just flop down to lie perfectly flat on the sides of the box once it’s opened. There is a certain musty odor of old tissue paper and a slight metallic smell that emanates out of that ornament box. It is a mingling of scents that when breathed deeply smell like only one thing: Christmas.
My excitement grows as I watch my father wrestle with each pencil thin aluminum tree branch as he tries to stick them into the pole. The tree pole resembles a shower curtain rod that has small pinholes all over. It is amazing how those branches stick out ramrod straight yet the tinsel-like needles sprout out in all directions. Watching my father trying to overpower the unruly branches is something to see. It looks like he is fighting a giant silver squid and the squid is winning. Once the branches are arranged they achieve the perfect symmetrical shape of a real tree, albeit one that is made out of synthetic silver aluminum manufactured by Sears.
My mother’s favorite part of Christmas is the music. She goes over to the huge Magnavox stereo cabinet that is about the same size as my father’s Buick and pulls out her favorite holiday album. The first Christmas songs that I learned as a child weren’t sung by Burl Ives or Bing Crosby. The only holiday album my mother ever played was the deeply religious “Dean Martin and The Golddiggers Swing in the Season.” There is a picture of Dean on the cover sitting in a sleigh and wearing a Santa cap. He is holding a martini in one hand and the reigns to the sleigh in the other. The Golddiggers are dressed in little reindeer costumes that look like bathing suits trimmed in white fur and they each wear tall white GoGo boots and have antlers in their hair.
“Oh, geeze, not that Dean Martin album again” my dad complains. “Every year it’s the same thing. Put something else on.”
“I like this album. It has all the classic Christmas songs on it” mom replies.
“Yeah, you’re right. Didn’t we just sing Jingle Bell Baby Rock at church last week” comes dads sarcastic retort.
While the bickering goes on, I fidget on the sofa, barely containing my excitement. I hold my handmade macaroni star in my lap and it seems to get heavier by the minute. As my father continues his battle with the tree his language becomes increasingly more colorful and less spiritual.
“This damn tree! I can’t get this damned thing straight.”
“Joe, watch your damn mouth, it’s Christmas” my mom screams. Then she turns up the volume on the stereo so that even though my dad’s lips are moving, no matter what he says, he sounds like Dean Martin. When the tree is finally assembled and the ornaments carefully hung, we all stand back to look at it. It is an amazing sight. A six-foot, blinding aluminum giant whose steel arms appear ready to stretch out and snatch you.
“It’s not straight” mom says.
“It’s straight” dad replies.
“No it’s not, it’s leaning to the left.”
Even though nothing further will be done, my parents will repeat this conversation several times a day for the next two weeks. I think the tree is beautiful. Bulbs of every color and shape hang delicately from the ends of the silver arms. There is no need to add tinsel or lights, unless we want the tree to be picked up by orbiting satellites. I hang my treasured macaroni star on a low branch that gets lower and lower until my mom makes a dive-bomb leap and grabs the star just before the silver branch snaps in two. She then suggests that since the star is so special it should have its own display on the sturdy oak coffee table. Even at six I’m not buying that story. As beautiful as the tree is now it’s still missing the final touch. The one item that my dad, and only my dad, is ever allowed to operate, the rotating light disc.
“Alright everybody get back” dad says. “ I’m plugging in the light now and I don’t want anyone to touch it. Do you understand me? When you want to turn this on come and get me and I’ll do it.”
I don’t know why my father is so protective of the rotating light disc. It’s really nothing more than a small spotlight that sits on the floor and holds a 2,500-watt light bulb that after plugging in reaches a temperature slightly hotter than the sun. Placed over this lamp is a colored disc that must have been made out of the same material NASA uses on atmosphere re-entry heat shields. Once the living room lights are turned out and the spotlight is turned on, the rotating light wheel bathes the tree in alternating colors of gold, green, blue, and red. Of course my dad can never quite get the light pointed directly at the tree and the spotlight ends up flashing around the room like the searchlights used during a prison break when someone goes over the wall. Still, we stand back as a family and admire the tree with collective “Ooohs and aaaahs.”
Now that the tree is complete, it’s my job to set up the manger scene. We have a Nativity set that once also belonged to my grandparents and it is so old I think the stable was made from part of the original.
“Terry, be careful with those statues, they were grandmas.” My mother suffers from the delusion that this manger set is somehow priceless. In fact, the bisque statues are cracked; there are only two wise men, a cow with three legs and a camel minus one hump. But, the biggest horror comes when I pulled out Joseph.
“Mom” I yell. “Joseph doesn’t have a head! And I can’t find it in the box.”
So, as I spread the paper straw all around, I take great care in setting the scene. I lean the three-legged cow against the stable, and in a brave attempt to hide the headless Joseph I lay him underneath the cow as if he is either milking her or performing artificial insemination. I place the baby Jesus in his straw bed and in a stroke of genius; pull out my Ken doll to pinch-hit as the third, and I might add, tallest and best-dressed wise man. When everything is complete I stand back to admire it. In one sweeping glance I take in the silver tree, the Italian ornaments, the blinding light and the pathetic Nativity scene. And then I hear the voiceover…
“And that’s how to make a perfect nostalgic Christmas.” Martha’s monotone voice pulls me out of my reverie. When I focus on the TV screen again freshly scrubbed cherubic children eating a homemade gingerbread house surround her as she waves goodbye. I have to laugh. Who is she trying to kid? No one’s Christmas turns out that perfect. Including Martha’s. I know how old she is and you can bet that somewhere in her Christmas past there’s an aluminum tree. So what if our ornaments were mismatched and our Nativity scene looked more like Sodom and Gomorrah after the fall than Bethlehem, my childhood Christmases couldn’t have been more special. Besides, how many first graders know all the words to Dean Martin’s“You’re My Jingle Bell Baby Rock?” Not many.