Music to My Ears

Christmas and Us

When I was a kid, on Christmas Eve I heard my parents taking presents from an unused room next to the bedroom I shared with my younger brother. The full blown truth of Santa Claus came crashing down on me all at once and at the worst time, right before Christmas morning. I was so shocked I woke my brother, two years my junior, and broke the news to the poor little tyke.

Yes, we were tight my brother and I.

I have a dream at least once every season where I’m coming home from work on Christmas Eve and as I walk through the door I realize we haven’t picked up a tree or gotten any presents for the kids. We run out to the tree lot (closed) and to the stores for presents (also closed). The feeling is horrid, the dread of seeing the kids in the morning and no tree, no presents. I’m actually sick, looking at the expectant faces of the kids and my wife’s disappointment. Then I wake up. It’s the only good thing about bad dreams; when you wake and realize all is well it’s worth the trip.

The trappings of this glorious holiday are, and always have been, important to my family and help bring the warmth to our holiday. We had poor years when we were kids, and sometimes we got presents that were re-wrapped from last year. But somehow it didn’t matter; it’s not about the presents anyway.

Growing up we never put up the tree until Christmas Eve, a hold-over from the days when the parents put the tree up after the kids went to bed and the story was that Santa brought it. Christmas Eve afternoon after we’d spent four hours harassing Dad he’d go outside to get the tree. Naturally we always bought a tree too big for the cellar stairs and door and often he’d have to cut off so much from the top and bottom that we ended up with more of a Christmas shrub.  The kids’ job was to get up in the weird attic and pull the decorations down while Dad puffed that tree up the stairs and into the living room, all the time broadening our language skills when he barked a foot on something we’d left for him.

We had a 6-foot wooden candy cane that Dad made in his shop that would go over the front door the weekend before Christmas. Pop would train two floodlights on it, one green and one blue. There were houses in our neighborhood that had more lights and decorations, but somehow the sight of your own house and that big stupid candy cane was warm and wonderful. Still a great memory.

Also the weekend before Christmas we’d spray that messy white stuff from a can over stencils in the windows.  That shit started falling off the window immediately and you had to listen to Mom with her ‘never again’ mutterings. The decoration boxes had all the tree stuff but also all those knickknacks that went back to that mystical land where Mom and Dad were children somehow.

We have a house-full today. It takes a full day to pull the crap out of the attic for the outside decorations and to put those up. My son Dean insists on doing this (thank you Lord) because he has his own way. His friend Nathan has been helping him since high school. Nathan lives in Omaha now but he still showed up this year.

Another day is spent on the inside. There are all those damn boxes in the basement in a closet under the stairs. Crap we’ve been gathering for 44 years of marriage. All the normal day-to-day stuff has to come down, the house cleaned and dusted, then out come 4987 Santa and manger figurines, angels, fake silver reindeer, candlesticks and festive candles. There are Christmas bears, various sleighs with reindeer flying to the ceiling. From the poor years when we couldn’t afford to buy decorations there are handmade bulbs, macaroni wise men, candy cane sleds and this tree Diane and I made at one of our first Christmases back in 1978. Still standing, if barely. There’s an Elvis Christmas tree that goes in our bedroom on a hope chest complete with a small village of Grace Mansion, the front gates, and a pink Cadillac with a tree in the back. After 12 hours the junk is all out.

I put the tree up. That includes assembly (we gave up on a live tree years ago), light testing on 15 or 16 strands of bubble lights, old C5’s, blinking candles and stars. Next is the garland, then at last the bulbs. We have two boxes of bulbs, possibly 75 in each box, so many they can’t all go up on the tree. The kids like to help with this part; the sentimentality of these ornaments is a special moment every year. There’s a bulb for each year since 1980, when we moved to Colorado. There’s a Baby’s First Christmas bulb for every child and even one dog. There are bulbs from all the family vacations in New York, Steamboat Springs, Santa Fe, Estes Park, Las Vegas, and campgrounds all over Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. M&M and Coke bottle ornaments from Las Vegas. Santa riding a Harley and sports ornaments for all the teams we collect for. Two from The Christmas Story that have recorded lines from the movie. Several more Elvis’s. Old wooden eggs, ancient bells, and clear icicles.

By the time we get done the damn thing looks like a still shot of an explosion a split second after detonation.

There are globes on the mantels crammed with green, silver, and red paraphernalia. One is a globe we’ve had since the kids were little, depicting a Santa peeking in on a sleeping child. 16 years ago, it sprang a leak and I had to empty it, fill it back up with distilled water then seal it with that red gasket goop you use on engines. But before I sealed it I couldn’t resist signing the back wall.

One year, my daughter Bree made a Santa sleigh and reindeer for Dean out of pipe cleaners. It’s getting hard to move; it wants to fall apart, but it goes on the downstairs mantle every year. Santa appears to have expired 15 years ago with a bad embalming job. A little creepy, but it would have to burst into flame to not get on that mantle.

This year a little panic ensued when we were down to the last box and we hadn’t found my plastic squeaky Santa yet. This little guy sits next to my chair every season. He came from my childhood and I remember him standing on our mantel every year growing up. And as it turns out, every year. When I moved out Mom gave it to me and told me he was bought and placed in my crib on my first Christmas.

I’m 64 years old. Think what a miracle it is we still have him. Now my kids remember him from every year.

Downstairs in the family room we have the village that gets set up on Gramma’s old hope chest. Dean insists on doing this as well, and you’ll lose a hand if you move one item. I move something every year just to piss him off. And yes, he knows where each piece goes.

So why am I boring you with all this drivel about our traditions? I know you all have traditions and decorations in varying degrees. Some of you go as fruitcake as we do, some have just a few decorations, and some do none. Each unto his own. But I recently had someone come into our home and exclaim how lucky we were to have so much stuff. Well we are lucky, that is true. But we didn’t just go out and buy everything; it’s accumulated over 44 years and some even longer. The first village piece started with our first Christmas together, it’s over in the upper right. We add a piece every now and then, and somehow you end up with this hodgepodge. Same with the knickknacks and bulbs. We had plenty of lean years but we just hung onto stuff.

We do enjoy Christmas and appreciate our reminders. The reminders include the Christmases when we had no tree and no presents. One year we couldn’t afford a tree. When a sweet but criminal friend of ours found this out, he raided some rich guy’s yard and cut us a tree. We shouldn’t have kept it but the looks on the kids’ faces…In a few recent years Diane and I didn’t get each other gifts, we sent gifts to the kids but that was all the money we had. It happens. Times are rough sometimes and often for years. Keeping good memories is critical to getting through those times.

The Christmas season brings us the special memories, even the lean ones. Stress is also part of the season but we have to remember the small things that make us happy. The celebration of the birth of the Messiah has ended up being a crazy spell with the shopping, visits, family, food, and generally bad movies. But in between the mall visits and last-minute rushes is the house on the corner where the only decoration is a green porch light bulb. Love that.

Merry Christmas All.