Monday, December 21, 2009

and so this is christmas

I've noticed a couple more things about this space as I try and remember to look at it more than once a month. One, it looks a lot like what it is -- something started about five years ago and generally untouched by any technological advance from the most basic template, apart from my ruthlessly pirated header above (thank you, artist who's name I forget!). Really hoping to get around to changing all that at some point but, eh, probably not. Suffice to say I'd like to apologize for my dated appearance, but that's a little consistent with real life. Plaid shirts, anyone?

Second, if you were to happen by and read some of this stuff you might be possessed by the impression that I'm one grim bastard, which is a less-accurate reflection. True, it's been a year and in some respects a bundle of years where there's plenty of material, we'll call it, to stare at my bellybutton about. But certainly not as much as others, and on the whole I'm generally not the guy at the end of the bar staring into the bottom of my glass and pondering the meaning of it all. Generally.

So today, a holiday story. Or at least an attempt at one.

One of the beautiful things about holidays is the extension of traditions, some of them so small you'd hardly notice they've been adopted until suddenly you're carrying them on. One of my favorites that we have quietly picked up through the years is acquiring odd or otherwise unique ornaments for our yearly tree, such that's it's been. We've never been the sort that rushes through Target, picks up a box of colored balls and icicles and called it a day -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

It's something that started with my dad when he was a teenager, visiting family from house to house in South Boston with my Grandfather on Christmas Eve. They'd deliver presents and have a drink and, without fail, steal an ornament off the tree at every stop. As I remember it this was an understood bit of holiday theft, and maybe there was even a moment where my grandfather would take some time to pick one out with the host's blessing, I'm not sure. But suffice to say by the end of the night my dad was fairly carrying my grandfather home as the drinks and houses added up, but out of that came my family's tradition of buying a couple new ornaments year after year.

And that's a lucky thing. When I was growing up I loved all the strange and otherworldly stars of our family's Christmas tree. I can see them now, the fake gingerbread/marshmallow house made out of chunky, Pepto-colored styrofoam. The little orange lightbulb with the clown face of yarn made by my brother in 3rd grade. A ceramic mouse napping on a crescent moon with my name on it, a gift from my teacher in 4th grade. The lanky stuffed elf in red, dangling from a rickety ladder as a string of metallic gold beads spills out of his hand and his little surprised face stitched to a tiny 'o,' only slightly larger than a pinhole. These are the decorations and stories that make up our tree, and I've adored them from every angle since I was little. 

So much so that I used to sneak down to our crawlspace in Ohio, where our tree was boxed up in pieces next to a taped up green Glenfiddich box that held our ornaments. My fascination would start every year sometime toward the end of October, when the weather would turn in that unmistakably biting and smoky way to let you know, yes, Winter is coming. It all usually happened right around the time the JCPenney catalogs were expected.

I'd crouch down there in my slippers and oversized Snoopy robe and dig for some of my favorites, unwrapping them from crumpled paper and plastic to hold them up to the pale shop light that hung over our sump pump, gurgling quietly to itself in the corner. Eventually my mom would fetch me out of there, but I appreciate that I was allowed to linger a bit on that cold concrete floor.

I remember our tradition with the lights, once the tree finally went up (usually somewhere in the teens of December.  My dad and I would 'build' the tree and string the lights (we've had artificial trees since I was about six or so, and I barely remember the few real ones apart from the absurdly rotund 'pregnant' Christmas tree from when I was four or five), and, like an aesthetic cavalry, my mom would come in and reshape before the decorating could continue.

The branches would be bent here or there to cover empty spaces, and the lights would be strung and restrung by my mom to get the solids over here, a series of blinking lights over here, all with the unspoken yet understood goal of giving each year's tree a unique pattern of lights to overlap with eachother on and off, a unique sort of randomness that always built a sort of tension and left no corner unlit in a thoughtfully composed holiday drama that you might see on a parade float, or some kind of gallery installation. Sometimes it took as long as an hour.

Then the ornaments would come out. My dad always placed the elf with the ladder first, just below the angel at the top, and then we cycled through the whole box, holding certain special ones up for eachother and remembering their stories. A lot of ornaments are marked by years, and inevitably those  say something about the state of the family. 1981 is a simple circle of sleigh scene on painted wood, indicative of the tough times after my dad lost his job during the PATCO strike. The 1985 ornament is a Santa in a bathing cap, a tribute to our first Christmas in California after moving from Ohio. Inevitably, we had more ornaments than tree, as well as more lights, garland and tinsel than anyone probably needs. But the tree always looked perfect, and somehow better every year.

Now my wife and I have some ornaments of our own, though not nearly old and weathered. We've got a matching pair of crocheted penguins, each for some reason carrying luggage. An armory of fuzzy wool balls, each with whimsical polka dot and stripe patterns in some sort of parody of holiday colors like olive green, maroon and harvest orange. A fuzzy rabbit in a scarf and oversized knit hat. A small army of angels given to me by my father each successive Christmas since my mother died.

These all were slowly acquired year after year, carefully put away in a box, and placed sort of at random on our abbreviated attempt at an annual Christmas tree. I say abbreviated because we had misgivings about dropping a full-size dead tree in the corner, so we had little, 3- or 4-foot varieties, sold to us by bundled carnies at the neighborhood tree lot and jammed into our little hatchback. (Seriously, have you looked at the staff at the average tree lot? I think we know what happens to that guy smelling vaguely of circus peanuts and Krylon while tending to the Zipper every summer.)

This year, there would be no more of that. B finally reached her breaking point and bought us an actual, 7-foot fake tree from, yes, Target. The best faux-fir totem $60 could buy, and it is, an awfully lovely and awfully grown-up kind of tree. The tradition, the holiday as a whole, feels like it's dug in a little deeper in our lives, and it's good. But the funny thing is how quietly the other traditions have been passed along.

A few of our ornaments already have their ideal placement on the tree, and I know they'll find their way there every year (that rabbit in the hat, our first ornament, seems on its way to becoming our thin little elf). The few heavy fake-vintage glass balls hang out at the bottom, and everything else fills in. The lights, however, are all white, a shift from the rainbow-colored blinky assortment my family always preferred as I was growing up. But this Christmas I noticed that I was the one bending the occasional tree branch after we put it up, then I was the one tangled in wires and stars as I rearranged the strings of light just so, making sure every corner of the tree was lit up just right.

These days my dad still trims the tree at his home up in the desert, joined by my seven-year-old niece who I'm sure has also grown to appreciate the magic in those weird little decorations. Over the years the ornaments have evolved to where some of them light up, some have strange little movements powered by the lights on the tree, and others play unsettlingly canned holiday music. I don't have nearly the same connection with these as I did with the ones from when I was a kid, which are still scattered around the tree, but I welcome them all.

The family tree has changed, of course. The lights don't blink the way they used to -- for expedience's sake, my dad opted for a tree with lights wired into the branches in the years since my mom's been gone, and I'm sure if i was to really take the time to look at each ornament I'd barely recognize the newer ones or know their stories, or even if they have them. But each and every year when we stumble into my dad's house after making the drive on Christmas Day, I know that tree is ours.


At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Chris!! That's what life is all about, Merry Christmas!!



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