Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind. ~Mary Ellen Chase
I love unearthing the tissue-wrapped ornaments, collected over a lifetime, stirring memories like a cinnamon stick in a mug of hot cocoa.
The tree is a canvas I work on in a painterly fashion: spacing the red and gold ornaments and the glass icicles, bought when I was nineteen for my very first Christmas on my own. They serve as a backdrop for the Santas, snowmen, Kate’s collection of Barbie ornaments, and the myriad balls and baubles that trace my past.
I am often astounded how memory scratches at our sensibilities and transports us to another time and place, peopled with family and friends who have left our lives, either through death, divorce, or simply losing touch.
The manger my mother collected from Woolworth’s during my own childhood, is reverently unwrapped. The honor of placing the baby Jesus in his crib, once upon a childhood, my sacred responsibility, will wait for my daughter’s loving hands. The papier mâché sheep and cow, and the angel that hangs over all, keep vigil over the homeless holy family.
My mother bought the manger over several years, because even at Woolworth’s, a “five and dime” ancestor of the dollar stores, they were expensive. When Mom was finally able to afford the remaining wise men, they had stopped carrying the larger size of our collection, so there is a lone wise man, instead of three. He kneels reverently, a reminder of the sacrifices made by my mother to ensure a bountiful holiday for my sister and me.
I remember the Christmas we had an aluminum tree with a spinning color wheel that turned the silver branches from red to green to blue to yellow. I remember the old glass ornaments (my favorites) that were glittered and sported all the colors of the rainbow and the tinsel my mother would painstakingly drip from each branch.
Our living room, the only room that my mother never finished decorating, was a vast tundra of white carpet – a child’s Christmas wonderland. The tree would always stand in the corner, nestled between the piano and the sliding glass window. I would croon at the top of my lungs with Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. The stereo served as my big band, and the empty room my concert hall.
The first year after my mother and step-father were divorced, after we had sold our house and moved into an apartment, my very uncrafty mother sewed wide velvet bows of blue and green and gold and paired them with like-colored shiny ornaments adorning a white-flocked tree. She had also bought three sizes of very artsy drinking glasses, the different sizes matching the velvet bows. For years I abhorred blue, green and gold, because the colors had encroached on EVERYTHING in our household – including the flecks in the sofa and dining chairs!
I remember the large flat golden box of Crayola crayons that I got one year, containing more colors than I knew existed. I think it is why my heart still races when I walk into a fabric, art, or craft store. Any array of colors sends my creative mind whirring, then as now.
I remember my first Barbie (which was the first Barbie) and “Cissy”, a Madame Alexander doll draped in pink satin and a white fur stole. My favorite part of playing “Barbie”, however, was the Playdough food I had crafted. Even then, what I created was more interesting to me than the store-bought gifts that sat, glittering, under the tree.
I remember Nana’s house, festooned for the holidays with trays of homemade pasta and powdered-sugar “knots” drying in every room. On Christmas Eve, the sumptuous table would change from fish to ham and turkey, at the stroke of midnight. The sleepy cousins would try to stay awake, hoping to catch Santa in the act.
The noisy family gatherings are gone, along with most of the noisy, wild and wonderful relatives that are now the ghosts of my childhood Christmases. But even if the traditions have grown smaller and quieter, they are cherished just the same.
Whatever your lot this year, whether your holiday is filled with fun and dysfunction, or quiet celebration, draw those you love close and create a memory that will stand the test of years. Merry Christmas!