Christmas was the highlight of my parents’ year. They looked forward to the season possibly more than any child I have ever known. From selecting a tree and decorating the house, to shopping for the perfect, or sometimes the most absurd gift, attending parties and goofing off on the 26th, my folks made December a full month of celebration. Some memories are sentimental, of course, but most are silly and fun.
The band played (the Christmas music) on (and on and on…)
The season always kicked-off the morning after Thanksgiving by hauling out all my parents’ Christmas albums and playing each of them through to the last one, and then starting over again. It was an eclectic mish-mash of classical, liturgical, traditional choral, pop, rock-n-roll, jazz, and what we now refer to as “vintage.” It drove my father crazy to hear all of it all at once, non-stop throughout the day, so naturally we made it our mission to torture him every year by vigilantly sitting by the phonograph, spinning those records as if we were DJs at a disco, until the moment my mother would finally declare “Enough!” I was the ring leader in this every year. My family used to tease me I would do well working retail during the holidays, given my high tolerance for hearing the same Christmas tunes over and over again.
Hey! You’re not Santa!
Most of us have stories of the moment we learned or realized that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny do not exist. Mine came at about the age of six or seven when I recognized my father’s handwriting on the note “Santa” left in my stocking thanking me for the cookies I left by the fireplace. But, because I don’t have children, until one particular Christmas well into my adulthood, the magic of who filled our stockings while we slept remained intact for me.
The Christmas in question was during the first few years after my divorce; when I would spend Christmas Eve at my folks’ house instead of going back to my place after a long night of festivities. At some point during that particular year, my mother had replaced the bed in their guest room with a horribly uncomfortable hide-a-bed, so I decided to sleep on the living room couch instead.
Five minutes after settling in for a long winter’s nap, the lights flicked on and my mother, in her threadbare bathrobe and a less than jolly look on her face, trudged into the living room and over to the fireplace dragging a large garbage bag behind her. She didn’t look at me, but went straight to her work, filling the stockings in a decidedly un-merry manner.
I am not joking when I tell you I was flabbergasted as I watched her unceremoniously reveal The Mystery of How Christmas Stockings Are Actually Filled. Until that moment, it hadn’t ever occurred to me how much of a little thrill I still got on Christmas morning seeing the stockings, that were empty the night before, miraculously filled with gifts and treats. Of course I know Santa isn’t real. Of course I knew either my father or my mother filled the stockings when no one was looking. But, watching an exhausted, grumpy old woman almost ruthlessly jam stocking-stuffers into each sock was a rude awakening.
“Mom! What are you doing?!” I demanded.
She was so tired; she didn’t know how to respond. She just stared at me and shook her head.
“This is like learning how a hot dog is made, or something!”
She ignored my protests and went back to work, ranting as she completed her task. She cursed my father for being a lousy elf by always leaving this sort of thing to her, and then scolding me, that if I didn’t like the new hide-a-bed I should sleep on the floor in the guest room, if I was going to be that way about it, and oh, by the way, it’s high time I learned that Santa doesn’t exist.
There isn’t a Christmas morning since I look at Christmas socks and wish that magic moment of discovery back again. But that moment has been replaced with the goofy memory of this story; of how I finally, once and for all, had to learn the hard way that Santa Claus is, in fact, my mother.
Oh, Christmas Tree, OMG, Christmas Tree
The tree was of paramount importance to my parents. It always was a Noble Fir, always purchased the Saturday after Thanksgiving, always as tall as the ceiling would allow, and always decorated with small colored lights, an eclectic mix of colorful ornaments, and the “top angle” (as somebody misspelled “angel” on the storage box, so that’s what my father called it).
There was a method to the Christmas tree madness: First, we had to go to an appropriate tree lot. My father was a City Manager, so that meant we went to the politically correct Lion’s or Rotary Club or local Boy Scout troop charity lots. This also meant we’d be stuck there for a long time, since my father would inevitably run into a concerned citizen who would take advantage of the opportunity to get into whatever complaint they had about potholes, utility fees or a neighbor’s flagrant disregard for the city ordinance mitigating the raccoon population (he’d explain there actually wasn’t an ordinance, so then he’d get an earful about why there should be one).
Since my folks were very fussy about the look of their tree, the limited selection of trees at these lots made for some excruciatingly long tree hunting excursions. One year we finally grew impatient and took matters into our own hands.
Bravely, one of my sisters demanded out loud we just select “any old dumb tree!” Taking a clue from my sister’s lead, and before either parent’s disciplinary hammer could come down for “being flippant,” I made a bee-line to the first tree I thought looked acceptable. My sisters agreed it looked just fine. Our folks, still geared up to ground lot of us for the whole of Christmas break, suddenly stopped their scolding, and with mutual looks of curiosity and astonishment, agreed the tree was more than acceptable.
Ever since then, that’s how all of us select a tree for our homes: Walk into the lot and go for the first tree that looks good. Give it the once over, and if it still passes scrutiny, buy it, because in the end, it’s the time spent around the tree that should be clocked, not the time it took to select it.
Tree lights are an equally big deal in our family. There must be a lot of them and they must be perfectly arranged. I learned my father’s brilliant technique of “zig-zagging” the strands, starting from the top on the inside, stretching outward to about 1-2 inches from the edge of a branch, and then back in again. Because I mastered this technique and because I am too gullible with a compliment (“Oh, well, you know, our tree never looks right unless you do the lights.”) I ended up the one who does the lights for everyone’s trees each year. I’ve tried to get out of this chore over the years, but not one family member has stepped forward to play grasshopper to my Christmas tree-lighting sensei.
There are a couple other tree memories: There was the year we moved into a house with a cathedral ceiling in the living room, so my dad insisted on getting a tree to match its grand height. I was very young at the time, but I have a vivid memory of a lot of people trying to erect that tree. It was like watching a barn-raising, but by people who hadn’t a clue how to build anything. From then on, if it couldn’t be supported by a standard tree stand, required airline cable suspension, safety struts and a 15 foot ladder to decorate, it was not allowed (The Mother Has Spoken).
One year our garage burned down (electrical fire). The rest of the house was untouched, but everything in the garage, which was more of a rec-room/dad’s shop/mom’s storage, was lost, along with all the Christmas decorations. My mother was devastated, but she rallied, and we ended up with what we love to recall in the years that followed as the best Christmas tree ever. Mom carted us to (what we called in those days) the dime-store to purchase super-cheap colored balls, stockings and random decorations. Then we raided the toy chest and pulled out all the stuff that was small enough to hang as ornaments. I even hung my Barbie’s clothes on the tree. By then my sisters were teenagers, so they added their jewelry and accessories. This was the ‘70s, so there were flower-power pins, groovy beaded necklaces, macramé and lots of peace signs. My dad got into the game as well, and—as a joke—strung together small tools, screws, washers, nails and other shop paraphernalia that survived the fire. Mom didn’t keep the tools and such on the tree, but it was fun while it lasted.
Over the years my mother replaced the decorations that were lost, but she held on to many of those toys, baubles and cheap Christmas crap from the dime-store. She gave them their own sort-of commemorative “land of misfit toys” display on a bookcase shelf. That decoration motif became an important part of the overall holiday experience of their house, because it represented the fact that the spirit of the season always brings out the best in everyone, regardless their circumstances.
The year my father decided to DIY gifts for everyone, he shopped at stores he’d never been in before, like hobby and craft shops. Roaming the aisles of one craft store, he was totally taken aback when he came across an entire floor-to-ceiling wall of naked Santa Claus dolls. They were about 6-in in height with silky, snow-white hair and whiskers, red hat, black boots, but otherwise entirely naked (and, not surprising, anatomically lacking). He said the site of hundreds of round-bellied, naked Santa Claus dolls, but for the hat and the boots, made him laugh so hard he drew attention from others in the store, many of whom came over to see what was so funny. A store clerk pointed out that there was a variety of Santa Suits displayed on the opposite wall in which to dress the dolls, but my dad was having none of that. He bought one of the “au natural” dolls for my mother as her particular gift from him that year, wrapped it with great care and attention, and beamed with mischevious glee when he presented it to her on Christmas morning.
Now, my father’s particular gift for my mother each year was typically something charming or sweet, like a pair of earrings, or bracelet, or something he was told she admired while out shopping. So, she was a little brought down and definitely not amused to receive a naked Santa doll. But we thought it was hysterical.
Over the next several years, though my mother tried to “misplace” Naked Santa, she never got rid of him. My father always found him buried at the bottom of a box and would place him prominently somewhere among the other tasteful holiday decorations…and my mother would subsequently remove him and hide him someplace else.
Eventually, Naked Santa ended up with his own place of honor: in the guest bathroom, discretely tucked behind a decorative arrangement of seashells and potpourri. However, the game of prominently placing him in a more obvious spot was still on. Once we were all gathered as a family at Christmas, somebody would take it upon themselves to move Naked Santa from his discrete place in the bathroom to some place that would primarily be seen by my mother. He’d end up next to her shampoo in the shower, on her pillow, in her underwear or jewelry drawer, the dashboard of her car, her computer keyboard, peeking out of her purse, etc. etc. It was fun to be in the house when she found Naked Santa, just to hear her playfully yell and curse each and every one of us, starting, of course, with my father (btw…I’m sure this is reminiscent of Elf on a Shelf, but at the time none of us knew that story).
Both my folks are gone now, but their jolly holiday legacy definitely lives on. They instilled in all of us a need each year to make our homes merry and bright, regardless how dull, tired or down our lives’ current circumstances may have us feeling. Recalling cherished memories such as these make the holidays all the happier.