This is the first in a series of reflections based on Christmas memories from all stages of my life.
A Cascade of Color
Of all childhood times, vacation included, Christmas took the pudding as far as good times went. From the warmth exuded by Ma and Pa, to the sumptuous fare served at both meals on Christmas, to the exuberance demonstrated by all of us kids, this season stood a Christmas tree’s star higher than any other time in our lives.
In our house the emphasis was always on the spiritual side, with the materialistic part allowed to flow in as a welcome addition. Therefore, the time before Christmas was spent preparing for the grand day. Most of this work was done under Ma’s supervision, with the house just blown apart, while we all attacked the job to the best of our abilities. Cleaning the place involved everyone who was not gainfully employed outside the home, bringing in hard, cold cash.
This was not like in the summer, when Ma would hand each of us a list of chores, with the understanding that when the work was done, you were a free bird. There was also the understanding that if any of the chores did not met expectations, then you could be called back for an encore effort. No, this was an endurance race: which would come out on top, the house or the kids?
We’re talking about pulling the couch away from the wall so as to be able to scrub baseboards, wash windows and vacuum. We cleaned door jambs of fingerprints and dirt, we took the curtains down in the kitchen so that Ma could wash them and we scrubbed the widows and sills. If we griped about the work, Ma reminded us about the reason for the clean-up. “Santa Clause does not stop at dirty houses.” And if the older boys already knew that there was no Santa, they were smart enough not to let on.
The tree rotated around the living room different years, sometimes ending up in the window looking out onto the front porch, and other years being set up in the front dining area, in the years after the floor heater was replaced with a more practical wall furnace. Of course, JT had to experience sitting on that hot furnace first before it was deemed replaceable. I don’t have any idea if there was a connection, but I do know that the floor furnace got covered up with flooring and then carpeting.
My earliest Christmas memory is from when I was three, and the tree was set up in the front dining area. I was pushing a yellow dump truck across the carpet in the direction of the tree. The tree lights were on and it was dark outside. The windows were all steamed up, and the lights flickered off the inside of them in a sparkling bonanza of Christmas color. The tinsel and ornaments, always in abundance on our tree, reflected off of those same windows, the steam diffusing the bright colors unevenly all across the framed glass, in an unbalanced kaleidoscopic cascade of color.
No matter how trashed the house looked three days before, by the time Christmas Eve arrived, it was immaculate. We never set the tree up any earlier than the eve of the great day, mostly because it did not belong in place until the house was clean; even as kids, we recognized that.
I awoke from a nap one Christmas Eve, and stumbled out to see Pa placing ornaments on the tree. No one else was around, and he was in a wonderful frame of mind, as was mostly the case when these kid-oriented events took place. It seems obvious to me now, that Mama had taken the others off the the store, or to Uncle John’s, and that Pa was enjoying himself, performing a simple task which connected him to his childhood, as surely as I will soon be connecting to my own childhood.
I might as well be three again, pushing my dump truck across the living room carpet. The ornaments dangling from their respective bobbing branches, the sparse tinsel all the prettier for its scarcity, and the smell of Douglas Fir permeating the room, all combine to keep that Christmas pageantry alive and flourishing. The homemade ornament, made by Pa when he was in grade school, hangs in its honored place, amidst the ornaments that will continue to carry the message of "Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men and Women," even if a poster of Buster Posey has replaced that dump truck.