Last week I saw a man walking up and down the path beside the creek, gathering evergreen boughs. He would collect and armful, and then he would sit down and clean them, stripping off the lower twigs to leave a clean stem. He did this over and over and then walked out of sight carrying the whole bundle.
I don’t know why he was collecting the branches, but I like to think that he was collecting them for holiday decorations. I had this picture in my head of him sitting in a warm house or apartment somewhere using floral wire to form the pieces into garland, and hanging it over a doorway with bows at the corner. Maybe there was a kid there who was super excited for Christmas, and maybe there were cookies in the oven and Bing Crosby or something playing.
I like to think this because to me, it’s a happier thought than thinking about someone going to Target to buy some plastic Christmas decorations.
I also like to think this because Christmas in my family was not a particularly happy time.
My mother was very interested in having a perfect Christmas rather than a fun Christmas. There were cookies and treats that we weren’t supposed to eat, and there was an enormous dinner to cook, and there were special table linens and good china and special silverware. There were all kinds of decorations that we weren’t supposed to touch, ever, even though they looked like toys and many of them were essentially stuffed toys that we couldn’t have broken.
There were candles and candle sticks that only came out a few times a year, and they were silver so they had to be polished by small hands. I remember kneeling on a chair at the sink polishing silver for the holidays, and showing them to my mother, and I remember her sending me back to polish them again… the polish was a blue-hued gritty substance that you dipped out of a pot and rubbed on the silver with a round sponge, rubbing until all the tarnish was gone. I remember digging my fingernails into the sponge to polish the crevices in the silver.
We always had a real tree. In fact, while we lived in Singapore, I’m told that we paid four hundred dollars to have a real tree flown in from Germany. I was the “creative” child, so my mother thought that I would be the one to decorate her tree for her. There was a very specific way that it had to be done… the lights went on first, and then you had to check with her to make sure that there were enough lights… if you moved on without checking, you would have to take down all of the other decorations to add another string of lights, because the lights go on first.
Then the ornaments went on, and lord help you if you had too many in one spot, or if there weren’t enough on the back of the tree, or if the ornaments were in the wrong spot on the tree… she had specific ornaments that went on the bottom and ones that went near the top, as established by some complicated algorithm of fragility versus weight. Also, you couldn’t have two similarly themed ornaments next to one another… this included ornaments of similar colors or made of the same materials. So you couldn’t have two glass ornaments next to each other, or two wooden ornaments, or two felt ornaments. You also couldn’t have two birds right next to each other, or two snowflakes. If you factor into that the fact that instead of tinsel, we finished our tree with “antique” silver colored beads made of glass, and decorating the tree became a strenuous puzzle rather than a fun family activity.
The beads slowly broke until it was determined that they were no longer pretty enough, and they were thankfully discarded.
There were two music options that I remember, one was Peter Paul and Mary, and the other was some kind of choir, the name of which I no longer recall. These were the ones that she thought were classy enough for Christmas in her house… we had other Christmas music. We just didn’t ever seem to play it.
In fact, it’s safe to say that the part of Christmas that I enjoyed the most was buying gifts for my siblings. As I got older, I was able to help with the cooking, and that was enjoyable as well… I started cooking around six or seven, but at that age I wasn’t considered to be capable with helping with the holiday meal.
I made a gingerbread house at Girl Scouts one year, and my mother liked it so much that she decided I would make gingerbread houses for her perfect Christmas. I resisted with claims of ineptitude, and this only lasted a couple of years when she realized she would have to help me.
My favorite things about Christmas as a child were the normal, homey things. Giving gifts to people, sneaking candy canes off the tree (we weren’t allowed to have those), and this breakfast bread made from Bisquick that had canned peaches and breakfast sausage baked into it. It was a relatively easy breakfast that would be baked in the morning on Christmas Day to sustain us through all of the cooking and chores that had to be done to pull off Operation Perfect Christmas. In the years before her death, my mother claimed that the recipe was lost, and I still crave it every year.
You see, these perfect Christmases were never perfect. They were filled with hurt feelings and wariness… the ever-present fear that some innocent mistake or slight, however inconsequential, would earn us a reprimand from our parents. It was a struggle until it ended, and a relief once it was over. They were nightmares, and my siblings and I all dislike the holidays for this reason. They were never times of joy or love. Just of stress, fear, and panic.
So that’s why, most Christmas seasons, if you were to walk into my apartment, you would not likely hear Christmas music or see any decorations… in fact, it would be difficult to tell that its Christmas at all. If I celebrate, I go out of town to see my sister or my cousin. This year I’m staying in town, and I think my plan is to just sit around in pajamas and play video games. And it’s not because I don’t have anything better to do… it’s because that’s what I want to do.
It’s also why I like to imagine people gathering together to prepare for Christmas, or whatever winter holiday they celebrate, with warmth and caring. That Christmas, wherever it is, is the perfect Christmas… filled with light and wonder and love.