Christmas Tree Musings
Back in the fall of 2005, I spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from major surgery. As Christmas approached, I was still too weak to do a great deal. My son and his family came over one Saturday to help me get ready for Christmas. That was the catalyst for penning this piece. I have revisited it and now share it with my readers as my Christmas card to you.
I’ve never considered myself a sentimental person, but I’m wondering if I should rethink that analysis. Yesterday my son and his family came over to put up my Christmas tree, because I had surgery a month ago and am unable to do it for myself this year. I watched and coached as they took the ornaments out of the new Container Store boxes I bought a couple of years ago because the original cardboard boxes had disintegrated. My nine-year-old granddaughter Emily was into it big time, although most of the ornaments she put on wound up in one small area on the front. My almost-three-year-old grandson Ryan was surprisingly focused as he waited for his mother to put the hooks on the balls and then brought them to me so I could hang them. It was great fun, even if Dad lost it over too much help untangling the lights and Ryan finally got tired and cranky when we wouldn’t let him wear the Christmas stockings. It made me almost thankful that my convalescence required this special family gathering.
As we hung the ornaments one by one, I began to realize that what we were putting together was more than just a centerpiece for our annual Christmas celebration. What we were doing, although the others may not have realized it, was recreating our family history. Starting with the starched angel that tops the tree, which my oldest daughter Mollie crocheted a few years ago to replace the gauche blinking star we had used since the 80s, almost every ornament can tell a story.
The oldest ornament on the tree—older than me, actually—is a glass ball about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. It came from the collection of decorations that my mother used on our trees when I was a child. The ball was originally decorated with painted lines and curlicues, which have faded almost completely beyond recognition. When I hang that ball, I think of the Christmases of my childhood. I remember the trees my mother decorated while we slept, and then, as I grew older, the ones I helped decorate, just as Emily and Ryan did yesterday. I remember how particular my mother was about “doing it right.” The lights must be distributed evenly. The biggest balls go at the bottom, graduated to the top. Be sure to put some deep in the branches, not just on the outside edges. No, we don’t just throw the icicles on the tree. Each one must be hung individually, from the inside toward the outside. It took forever! Thank you, Mother, for teaching me excellence—how to take pride in a job well done.
Beside the tree is the usual spot for the Clorox bottle Santa Clause. My mother made two or three of these when she took some art classes while she was working at Webb AFB, but this is the only one I know of that survived. Making it involved punching a pattern of holes into a large 2-gallon Clorox bottle, then twisting red and white plastic pompons into the holes to make the Santa suit. It was made to hold candy, which is why the back has a huge hole in it. The Santa Claus is special to me because it represents a very short period in my mother’s life when she got to explore things she wanted to do. Shortly after that, she was raising her grandchildren, and she had no time left for herself.
I hang some medium-sized glass balls in pastel colors painted with symbols that have a faintly oriental look, and I remember the first Christmas David and I shared together. We were both still in college and had no money. Somehow we were able to afford a small tabletop tree. I think we must have gone to a dime store (They don’t even exist anymore; dollar stores have taken their place.) to buy some ornaments. The cheapest available were made in Taiwan, back before the Taiwanese had learned to mimic American Christmas ornamentation so well. This Christmas was a portent of things to come; for my present David gave me a plastic kitchen clock in the form of an iron skillet and a tripod for “our” vintage pawn shop 35mm camera!
Only two of the plastic crystal ornaments are left—the snowman and the Santa Clause. Annette originally made a set of four. Annette was the single daughter of the couple who lived across the street from us on Hanson Lane in Pueblo, Colorado. They were from the Oklahoma panhandle, and Annette’s father Eugene’s job had brought them to Pueblo, the summer before Mollie was born. We became friends in part at least because they were almost like us Texans, and we could relate to them easier than some of our native Colorado neighbors. Annette was a teacher and had got a job at a school in Pueblo. Suddenly, right about Christmas, Eugene’s company informed him that they were moving him back to Boise City. Eugene and Evelyn were happy, but what about Annette? She had a contract she couldn’t get out of easily. To make a long story short, since we had a spare bedroom (Mollie hadn’t arrived at that time.), we volunteered to let her stay with us until school was out. Let me just say that it’s easier to be friends with someone who lives in another house than in your own. It was an adjustment for all of us, but we got through it. I suspect Annette was as glad to move back to Boise City in May as we were to see her go. So when I hang those ornaments, I remember that hospitality has its limits.
We have a lot of large and medium-sized red and gold balls, and they remind me of another Christmas, when Tim and Mollie were little. This was the Christmas when Grandpa and Grandma McClanahan and David’s sister’s family came. Grandma McClanahan had made her grandsons Chris and Tim each an embroidered denim shirt; she had spent hours on them. Both boys were taking violin lessons, so of course we had to pose them for pictures with their shirts and violins. Back to the red and gold balls…David, always alert for a bargain, went shopping for our tree just a few days before Christmas. At the tree lot, he found a 5-foot flocked tree that had been blown over into the mud in an unusual December storm the day before. He figured, since we would put the tree up against the living-room wall, nobody would see the dirty side of it, and the lot owner was selling it cheap. What a deal! We bought several boxes of red and gold balls of different sizes to make it look dramatic, and our company never knew that the back side of the tree was a disaster!
Scattered over the tree are various ornaments obviously made by very young hands with lots of help from assorted teachers and Girl Scout leaders. I am amazed that Cindy’s bread dough Santa has survived this long, although it is no longer hang-able. Unfortunately (or otherwise), the Santa Clauses made from toilet paper rolls didn’t.
We still have a set of homemade ornaments that our friend Nelda made for our family out of wooden shower curtain rings. Nelda and her family attended the same Baptist church with us, and she was a very “crafty” lady. I taught her girls in GAs, and she and David taught the 6th grade Sunday School class together for several years. She made the ornaments as a gift for our family one year by attaching round mirrors to the shower curtain rings, writing a family member’s name on each one, and then adding a hook decorated with a grosgrain ribbon bow in Christmas plaid. Hanging these reminds me of the good times and good friends we knew at our church.
The white and purple Sewanee ball was Mollie’s contribution from her first year at college. Families have to grow and change, and the Sewanee ornament has become a symbol of that for me. More transitions are represented by a set of six small glass angels, in the style of stained-glass windows, that my dad brought back for us from one of his stays in South Texas after Mother died, and by a pewter pencil ornament commemorating that my role had changed from supporting role in David’s accounting practice to that of teacher. Other ornaments are gifts from some of my students. Some of the latest additions are some red, white, and blue balls with stars on them that David bought the Christmas after 9-11.
As Tim and his wife draped the garland on the branches, Emily began putting the stockings under the tree. A few years ago, in response to the fact that our family was growing through the addition of in-laws and grandchildren, I decided that the old stockings needed replacing. I really put a lot of thought into this, because I wanted each stocking to represent the person to whom it belongs. David’s stocking is a rich gray with braid, honoring the “Silver Fox,” our patriarch. My stocking has Eeyore on it; that is because several years ago Cindy decided to give each of her siblings and her parents Winnie the Pooh appellations. I got stuck with Eeyore, I guess because I’m so pragmatic. Well, maybe it’s because my mouth turns down instead of up when I smile. Anyway, Cindy decided she was Tigger because she is so impulsive, Dana was Piglet because she worries so much, and Mollie’s husband was Winnie the Pooh himself (because he looks like a big bear? This was before Dana’s husband joined the family and we didn’t know then that his nickname in his own family is Oso, which means “bear” in Spanish.) The 100-Acre Wood metaphor eventually broke down. Mollie’s stocking is Mickey Mouse; I’m not sure I remember how that happened. Tim’s stocking is decorated with Coca-Cola logos, because he is a Coca-Cola collector. His wife collects teddy bears, so her stocking is adorned with one. Emily’s also has a teddy bear. Dana’s husband’s has a snowman; we still have a lot to learn about him, but that seemed an amusing choice for someone from El Paso. Our newest stocking is Ryan’s, and I picked one with a train on it for him. I’m afraid that may have been prophetic; he loves anything that goes.
Emily and Ryan began to get cranky, and Mom and Dad had to take them home before we could put out the set-about stuff. Later I did that myself. My favorite piece is one of two nativity scenes that I have. Sometimes I set it on a table, but I really don’t like it there, so this year I decided to put it where it belongs—right under the tree. To understand why this is the “right” spot, you have to know the story.
When I was probably about five years old, my grandmother came to spend Christmas with us. She brought a special gift—a cardboard manger scene. I had never seen one before, and it became the way I learned about the Christ Child. We punched out the pieces and then anchored them in the push-up tabs on the cardboard platform. The cardboard stable had a hole in the back which was designed to put one of the Christmas tree bulbs through to shed light on the manger. Consequently, the “proper” place for this nativity scene was under the tree.
By the time Kenneth and I were pre-teens (we didn’t use that term then), the cardboard nativity was in bad shape. Many of the tabs had been torn out and Mary and Joseph could no longer stand. Kenneth and I decided to replace it. At the TG&Y downtown they sold individual nativity pieces made of plaster of paris for ten and fifteen cents apiece. Every week when we got our twenty-five cent allowance, we would walk down to the dime store and spend all of it on the nativity pieces. Eventually, we bought the entire set, including a cardboard stable. We used it as long as we lived at home, but finally Mother wanted to update her Christmas decorations. Somehow, I got the manger scene, and we have put it out every year. Two of the camels and some of the sheep have been shattered. The dog’s leg was broken and had to be glued back; now he can’t stand unless you lean him up against a shepherd. But the important pieces, chipped and faded though they may be, are still there. The stable finally collapsed last year, and we replaced it with one of a modern style. So this year, when I unpacked it and thought about its history, I decided that even though the new stable has no hole in the back for a light, and even if it did, the lights we use now are too small, the nativity scene belongs in the place of honor—at the foot of the tree. After all, this is what Christmas is about, isn’t it?
I guess maybe I am a bit sentimental after all. In fact, I’m sentimental enough that before we distribute the Christmas presents this year, I plan to make the family sit quietly around the tree while I read this to them. The grandchildren will be squirmy to get to the unwrapping and won’t understand it. The adult children will indulge me but maybe catch a glimmer of it. What is it? It’s our heritage, our own unique heritage that sets us apart as a family. As jaded and shopworn as we get during the year, it’s what we yearn for, especially at Christmas. If refusing to forget or ignore that is being sentimental, I cheerfully plead guilty to the charge.