Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Decorations

The Christmas trees of my childhood were always cedar. My parents bought them live at the local tree lot. The day we set up the tree was always special. The decorations were fragile and varied, many of them from the Depression era or World War II. Most of the ornaments were glass and fragile. The angel had paper wings and a scowl on her face, worthy of a Depression-era angel. The string of lights had large pointed bulbs in red, green, blue and orange. Invariably the lights were tangled and my father’s job (cursing the while) was to untangle them. Usually, when they were plugged in they didn’t work. And, of course, in those days if any one bulb was bad or one socket defective, the whole string didn’t light up. Daddy would patiently take his voltmeter and check each socket until he found the problem. Yes, our strings of lights often had black electrical tape splices. We finished off the tree by throwing strands of tinsel on it – always making a horrendous mess. Without fail, before New Year’s Day, the tree had to come down. Forget the 12 Days of Christmas. Down South we had traditions and our tradition was it was bad luck to have a Christmas tree standing on New Year’s Day. Usually we burned the tree at the corner of the backyard, where we burned all the paper trash.

Soon the cedar tree gave way to a spruce imported from some distant northern state. It still smelled good, though arguably as messy as the cedar tree. We added some new shiny ornaments, but the years went by and nothing much changed.

Then in 1958, the year we moved, we got modern. My mother bought one of those aluminum trees that were all the rage. She decorated it with matching pink ornaments and then at night we used a color wheel and spotlight to change its color from red, to the blue, to green, to gold. The pink ornaments really faded into the background. I remember sitting in the living room as a young teenager, thinking about how cool and modern our family was, as I watched the color of the tree change.

That same year, my mother added a hummingbird tree. She decorated a small, green table-top tree with small multicolored hummingbirds that clipped on. They had small fiber wings and tails and actually were very pretty and delicate – a nice counterbalance to the aluminum tree.

In the late ‘50s our next door neighbor taught my mother how to make soap Christmas trees. Actually, they were rather clever and certainly a good mother/daughter activity. We made a cone out of chicken wire, inserted a dowel, and then stuffed it with newspaper. We then mounted the dowel in a square block of wood. But, here’s the best part, we dumped Ivory Flakes and water in the mixer and whipped up this substance that resembled meringue. We added pink food coloring and “iced” the chicken wire tree with our soapy concoction. Then we added some tiny ornaments (just stuck them in the soap) and topped the whole thing with glitter. We made a bunch of them and took them to cheer up the sick and elderly, and, of course, kept one for ourselves. It stood proudly in the entrance hall to greet everyone who attended our holiday party. Fortunately, this was a one season venture!

But, within a few years the aluminum tree was passé. Ornaments in bright colors were back, along with twinkly lights in multi-colors. Once again, we had a live tree. By then I was in college and decorating the tree became part of my “home for the holiday” ritual.

By 1969, I was married and my young husband and I came home for Christmas from Illinois. When we arrived, we had the task for decorating the tree. But Steve never was into tree decorating, so my mother and I did it.

But by 1971, our son was on his way and we were in California with our own home. David was due December 23 and my parents were flying out to be with us for Christmas. I decided that it would be a good idea to do the tree early – just in case. I went to a discount store and bought green, gold, red and silver smallish dull coated ornaments (144 to be exact – 12 boxes of 12) and an artificial tree (we didn’t want to have a live tree with a new baby). I also bought one box of ornament hooks alleged to contain 144 hooks. So I was all set. On December 6, I set up the tree and discovered that I was short 23 hooks. Boy, was I mad and I called the store where I bought the hooks and complained. The answer was – “They were made in China --- you could have a few more or less than is listed on the box. Why not just by another box and you will be set for years to come.” Today that seems like prudent advice, but to an expectant mother, that was an unsatisfactory answer. Instead of indulging them by purchasing more hooks, I simply used some bent paper clips. That will teach them! David was born the next day!

The next couple of years we just decorated that same artificial tree, but the final year we were in California, we decided to go to the Christmas tree farm and cut down a fresh tree. David was older now and we thought it would be a treasured memory (I should ask him if he remembers – I doubt he does). For those five Christmases, my parents came to our house and we all shared Christmas with my uncle and his family who coincidentally lived in the same area.

Once we moved to Maryland, we resumed the tradition of going to Alabama for Christmas. Still, we put up the old artificial tree, decorated it and took it down before New Year’s Day. During those years, when David was growing up, we amassed a collection of ornaments – many of them handmade. You see, I was teaching and it was the norm for students to give teachers ornaments.

When we went to Alabama sometimes my mother already had the tree up before we arrived. That was OK with me, as I had already decorated one tree before we left. But one year I remember, we decided (most likely with David’s urging) that my mother needed a live tree and we went out and bought one. I am not sure how much she appreciated the needles shedding, but it seemed like a good idea. They used the same old decorations, and they seemed special.

The years drifted by. David went from a toddler to a teenager. The last Christmas in Birmingham was 1988. My mother was dying with lung cancer and we all knew it. It was a horrid Christmas. We made a feeble attempt at decorations. There was no party and Christmas Eve we had Chinese take-out. We had Christmas dinner and our friends, the Joneses, joined us, as usual. I did a lot of the cooking, as did Eloise, as my mother was too weak. But she couldn’t stand watching us mess up the gravy, so she threw us both out of the kitchen and did it herself. It was perfect, as always. That Christmas an azalea was in bloom at the back gate. My mother always loved azaleas. I can’t help but think this one bloomed in December just for her. By January 13, my mother was gone.

Those next two Christmases my father flew up to spend with us. We decorated our artificial tree in the family room and bought a new small artificial tree for the bay window in the living room. Daddy wasn’t well, but we tried very hard to enjoy the time together.

We moved into our new house in 1992, though it seems just yesterday and the house still seems new to me. David has been married for many years now and his wife and the grandkids help me with the decorations. I discovered I was allergic to poinsettias, so I have a good-sized collection of silk poinsettias that we pull out every year. I have a special cabinet under the eaves where I store everything. I put a wreath on the door (guess I have had that same wreath now for about 14 years). Most years we just decorate the small tree and put it on the table in the bay window in the living room. All the ornaments are different. Strangely, the only things that survived from those original decorations from my childhood are the cross-eyed angel and a couple of hummingbirds. We still put them on the tree. I have grown rather attached to the cross-eyed angel. I still have a bunch of those dull small ornaments from 1971, but the other ornaments are much more interesting to use and the tree is small. But, whenever we need more ornament hooks, we use bent paper-clips. I have never bought another box of ornament hooks. I guess now it is a matter of principle.

I look around the neighborhood and notice that some of my neighbors have extravaganzas with outdoor lights. I doubt that is something I will ever do. Not that I mind them, but I don’t know how in the world at age 60 I am going to get them up in the trees or strung along the edge of the house. Then, of course, I would still have to get them down by New Year’s Day. A couple of years there, though I slipped up and left the decorations up after New Year’s – talk about bad luck!! I will have them down by New Year’s Day for sure this year. I want 2007 to be my best year yet