I hit the sauce three Sunday nights ago. After upending an entire box of ornaments on the floor, I knew the wrong Christmas spirit had gotten to me. Normally a family tree-trimming party wouldn't drive me to drink, but it just so happened that this one took place without ornament hangers, and those ancient, taken-for-granted, rusty ornament hangers - wherever they may be, God rest their souls - refused to show up for the occasion, like the Van Trapp family singers in "The Sound of Music".
I ended up in high dudgeon, ferreting through closets, cabinets, and storage boxes with increasing negative energy. The more I searched futilely, the more my heart shrunk a few sizes too small until I was tempted to tell my kids to grab some glitter, stale cookies and silly string and have at the tree.
With all the insanity that I heaped upon myself just within those first days of December, I - very predictably - began to reminisce about the "good old days", the "simpler times" of yore: my childhood Christmases.
How lovely those tree-trimming days were, how organized and how traditional in rural Tennessee! I thought. But as I watched Matthew and Berto, my oldest son, wrapping and unwrapping and rewrapping out artificial tree in lights, fussing all the way, I had similar visions of my dad uttering choice words under his breath as he battled strings of old lights and a metal tree stand with a profound preference for a tilted tree.
Most years in my childhood, we walked across the field behind our house and into our own woods a couple of weeks into December, Dad's loyal Lab Rueben carrying an ax in his mouth. Mama was the evergreen aficionado, so she had no qualms about turning down cold our suggestions for trees with "character", instead marching us through that forest until we found the fullest, tallest, most evenly branched tree that would fit into our humble living room. Hauling it home was a snap; Dad did all the work while we kids crowded behind, trying to jump over its tip-top. When we reached the porch, we stood back - except for the poor kid assigned to keep the door flat against the wall - while he and Nate shoved that big tree in the house and leaned it in the far corner.
Next we ascended up to and then rummaged through that dimly lit lair of poisonous spiders, our attic. Mom and Dad did most of the reconnoitering while we kids supported them by digging industriously through boxes of abandoned, broken toys. When they finally found the Christmas boxes, Dad hauled them down the rickety, fold-up stairs.
That evening he wrangled first with the temperamental tree stand, sometimes nailing it loudly to the floor, and then with the bunched lights, muttering sweet nothings under his breath at every tangle and busted bulb while we kids giggled into our sleeves, sometimes using those sleeves to wipe our mouths of the hot cocoa Mama had made.
Every year there was the same debate between Mom and Dad: to flock or not to flock. I'm pretty sure Mom kept hidden canisters of flocking in the dark recesses of the attic to conjure up when she got her way. She loved a white tree. It must have reminded her of growing up in Idaho. Dad was against anything unnatural, and a snowy tree was hardly likely in Tennessee - even in winter - indoors. Plus like all of us, I think he hated the fake-snow initiation, for as Mom busily flocked that poor tree with a wicked smile of delight upon her face, the rest of us were standing twenty yards back, coughing and waving our hands in the air to move the cloud of chemicals off to our neighbors. It was a toxic holiday experience. Sure the tree looked nice and snowy, but when we had adorned the tree with miscellaneous decorations, white residue abided on our fingers for weeks, evidence of Mom's dastardly deed to that poor evergreen tree...
Finally, when prep work was done and Dad and Mom sat on the couch, reconciled, they began to pass out the decorations to us kids. The colored balls came first, and a color was assigned to each child.
"Blue for my firstborn," Dad said to Vinca as he handed her the first ornament.
"Gold for my golden-haired girl," he said to Annie with her long, blonde hair.
"Red for my only son." That one for Nate, born on Dad's birthday.
Lastly, he handed me a green ball. "And green for my nature girl." I was his only bonafide tree-hugger.
After that we each took turns coming to the couch for the next ornament, treasured ornaments like Natie's little baseball player and my felt snowman and a suncatcher unicorn of Annie's. I guess it was because of that yearly ritual that I remembered our Christmases being calmer, more traditional. Our ornaments were always the same year to year, the only additions being any baubles we made in school, like clothespin soldiers. Our tree topper never varied and was always welcomed excitedly each December. She was a smaller paper angel with short, gold curls and a plastic hoop and face, humble like our home. We four kids took turns putting her atop that tree, her little hymnal bent in her tiny fingers. She had blonde hair and had been purchased after Vinca was born. Vinca and Annie both were towheaded as babies and toddlers, and the angel reminded my dark-haired parents of their first baby girl.
Ah, those were the days! And yet I think that perhaps - just perhaps - those days were simpler because we were poorer; we had less to fuss over and about. Nevertheless, as my parents hunted with four rowdy rascals for a tree, dug through a dirty, spider-infested attic, and wrangled with lights and an heirloom stand, they probably had some stressful Christmas moments. But - God bless them - they were good at keeping traditions, even the tradition of arguing over flocking.
As for my family? After replacing those AWOL hangers with a package of flashy fresh gold ones for a whopping 79 cents, I practically threw my kids' special ornaments at them the moment they woke up; whoever awoke first got to attack their ornaments in mass before school. It was a race to see how quickly in spare moments we could deck the tree, because all the boxes piled in my tiny living room were freaking me out and causing me to OCDrink. There was no rhyme or ritual, I'm afraid. And, yet, my children's excitement over favorite ornaments, many from Aunt Vinca, was not abated by my slapdash approach to decorating.
And this year my son Berto just happened to find our first angel for the top of the tree. For years I've looked for her. She had to be simpler and considerably smaller than many I saw in stores with elaborate and wildly different attire. Berto found her one happy Sunday afternoon in a discount store as we waited for takeout pizza. Unlike the angel of my childhood, she is fragile. But as our lights reflect off her simple white porcelain, she has, along with our abundance of eclectic ornaments, helped me to reclaim that good, old-fashioned Christmas spirit I sometimes think I left behind with that little girl in Tennessee.