Friday, December 17, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

According to a ritual is ”a formalized, predetermined set of symbolic actions generally performed in a particular environment at a regular, recurring interval. … The general purpose of rituals is to express some fundamental truth or meaning, evoke spiritual, numinous emotional responses from participants, and/or engage a group of people in unified action to strengthen their communal bonds”.  That is the definition of Christmas pageantry as well.

When I was growing up Christmas was always so grand! Not Hollywood grand, not Riches great tree grand, not best toys on the block grand, but truly the most wonderful day of the year grand.

The first act of our holiday celebration always began with the setting up of the tree. My father and mother made the decision on which tree was just right for whatever space we were living in that year. With much fanfare and saying of turn it this way, no that way it was settled into the old green stand with red legs.  It was always perfectly straight from the less full side and very crooked on the lush side. Inevitably a debate ensued about which side should face the room and why.  Six of one or half a dozen the other. They always looked scraggly before we dolled them up.

The lights were put on next. This was also my father’s job. He would strategically place one or two kids behind the tree so he didn’t have to walk around and around as he wove in the strings of bulbs. There was often cussing and muttering under his breath as some of the bulbs would inevitably be burned out or broken. When we finally got to the point of plugging it in we all stood back and oohed and aahed appreciatively. At this point the ceremony was turned over to my mother who orchestrated the intricate art of ornament hanging. We had ancient glass balls and bells and pretty homemade ornaments or ribbon and pinecone and cloves. We had years worth of baubles made by our precocious selves which were all lovingly unwrapped and placed in desirable locations in the front of the tree. Every trinket and bauble and bell came with its own story or a ‘remember when’.

After the ornaments were all in their final setting (much moving of ornaments occurred during the hanging process.), each of us having vied for the best location, or the branch in front of the green or red or blue bulb or the one closest to the ground or the door or the window, the tinsel was brought forth reverently. The packages were slit and the shiny strands pulled carefully from the plastic and cardboard that nested them. We were divided into two camps. We had the lay each strand carefully and at the correct angle so that it perfectly reflects the multitude of lights without hiding any of the better (translated as MINE) ornaments  camp and the toss it gently in the air and let the wash of our breath and the warmth from the fire carry it lovingly down to drape over the branches as chance and, alright, I’ll say it, God would have it camp. Fights always ensued (think Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle book) but in the end the smell, the soft glow reflecting equally as beautifully on straight tinsel as tossed, the hush that is inherent in the very ‘IT’ of Christmas took over and we stood and stared and fell in love with the rite all over again. It was a lavish and opulent tribute to all of our Christmases gone by and a prayer of hope for all those to come.

Act 2 of the Christmas play will forever be associated with the citrusy smell and woody thunk of tangerines and walnuts to me. These were in our stockings nestled in among bright foil wrapped chocolate coins and sticky, vaguely fuzzy ribbon candy. While I wasn’t a huge nut fan I knew I could trade them for someone else’s tangerine or an extra bit of Hershey bar. There would be plates of peanut brittle and the little spritzer cookies shaped like camels and spades. There would be homemade fruitcakes and apple and pumpkin pies. When my sisters were teenagers they made ginger bread and lace cookies and sugar cookies and fudge. A turkey rested in the fridge, getting ready to roast. Cranberries rolled around in a bowl, potatoes, yams and apples all jostled about on the countertops, threatening to tumble just to be snatched up and placed in a heap in the middle again.

In the two or three days preceding Christmas my parents would hole up in their room. We would gather out side their door hopping from foot to foot trying not to make a sound so we could hear them whispering. The door would open a crack and my mom would hand out a package to the first set of waiting hands and shut it fast again. We would read the tag and whomever’s name was on it would flash a million watt grin and scurry to the tree, shaking and twisting and listening to the contents for some magical sign of what treasure might be inside. As long as I can remember we always had three each. That was 24 wrapped presents and Santa hadn’t even made an appearance yet! We had greenery around the house. The crèche stood in its place of honor in the living room. All of the animals and figures were from three different sets so they were disproportioned with the baby half again as big as Joseph and Mary looking a Disney-esque giantess in the middle. Candles of red and green twinkled merrily from a homemade centerpiece while a fire roared in the hearth... Lights in the windows welcomed all to our home. At the appointed hour (Hurry! Hurry! He won’t come till you are asleep) we rushed off to bed, choosing where to sleep, all piled in one or each to his own? The agony of waiting a life time for the next six hours or so ensued.

Act 3 was the routine but thrilling drama of Christmas morning. Awakening to a silent, dark and cold house you hold back a shiver. The tightening of your chest as you realize the moment of truth has come. Is there a Santa? If so, have I been good enough? Were my brothers and sisters bad enough to ruin it for me even if I had been? If there was a Santa I would find that bike, pony, ball glove, race track, baby doll… WHATEVER, waiting for me. Creeping slowly, turn a corner… the Christmas tree lights are on. Excitement begins to build because you know your parents ALWAYS turn them off at bedtime. You pass the table and glance down to see that nothing but a few crumbs remain on the cookie plate. You left three dozen, Santa must have entertained. The shivers recommence then, full force. You pass glorious stacks of stuff for your brothers and your sisters… and then…. HOLY COW!! Not a pony but a beautiful model of a horse, and books on horses, and a book on how to draw horses, and drawing paper and colored crayons and pencils and Oh My Gosh, it is exactly what you wanted. Your hearts true desire, laid out in a pretty pile with your stocking on top. You relish your treasures, you  root through all of your siblings presents and then you go wake up the whole damn house, because you can, because it is Christmas and because the happiness, the love, the aliveness is more than you can handle on your own.

I don’t remember having lean years when it came to Christmas. Each one was glorious, neither for the quality of gifts nor the size of the piles, but for the romance and color and flavor, sound and smell of it. for the beeswax and hot apples and full bellies. for the thrill of hearing that little rustle, that little rattle which was always enough to entice but never enough to give it away, for the ice cold floor on bare feet under a perfect tree with cheeks full of chocolate and the scent of the exotic citrus in the air.