Growing up, Christmas and its attendant effervescence were all-consuming. We had no colored lights, inside or out – maybe we couldn’t afford them, maybe they didn’t fit into some restrained tradition I was unaware of. (I was unaware of most things those days.) I missed those lights as we tooled around the Philly suburbs looking at the wonderful grotesqueries of illumination at so many houses.
But inside, throughout our downstairs, we set up waves of decoration, mostly thin ropes of dark red crepe paper with little silver foil-on-papier bells at the ends. These wound around stair banisters and hung in wild swoops across the walls.
Absent lights, the tree hung heavy with fragile colored glass ornaments – cheap and inelegant in retrospect, but overwhelming in quantity and so distinctly ours. Under the tree we set out the accumulated wealth of miniature metal animals and citizens my mother continually collected from England.
Vic, 12 years my elder brother, had been the holiday decorator for many years. When he left to join the merchant marine, I took over and, I must confess, set to outdo him. And did. The farm miniatures expanded to cover not only the long “library table” that held the tree, but later (as I foggily remember) onto the coffee table.
So that was my Christmas as a child – devoid of any obvious religion. I loved most of the standard carols (except “Silent Night,” never could stand that drippy creak of sound), but had no idea what they were really about. Sex was never – never – mentioned in our house. I had no concept of it, so I saw Mary as a “virgin” as something peculiar to the bible, an indefinite word that did not live outside its 2000-year-old pages. Likewise, a “manger” – some kind of box or whatnot kept in stables in those days.
After I was entrapped into Catholic school, I joined the church choir and loved singing the Gregorian Chant at Christmas midnight mass. But though we sang in Latin, I understood the barest smidgeon of it. To me, “Gloria in excelsis deo” proclaimed that a a “deo” was the kind of barn where Jesus was born, belonging to one Excelsi – a good and caring farmer.
When my elder daughters, Morgan and Erin, were wee kids, I constructed all sorts of elaborate Christmas presents – playhouses with interlocking roof and walls, reversible plywood seats (taken from patterns in the back of Woman’s Day magazine – a remarkably good source for such stuff in the ’70s), things I could make over weeks that Julie and I could never afford to buy. Along the way, we did buy tree lights – ones that blinked individually in no rhythm; I would lie for hours on the darkened living room floor, watching, close to ecstasy.
As that first marriage tumbled, my Christmas slowly moved to eldest brother Rod’s house in Rose Valley, PA, where he always strove (and succeeded) in cramming the largest possible tree into the ancient mill-hand living room. There, in my 30s, I first heard Schutz’s “Christmas Story,” broadcast in the wee hours on public radio, while I lay strung back on dexedrine tablets filched from his medicine cabinet (dex was a legal weight-loss pill back then).
Christmas dinner at Rod and Ginny’s has become the lasting family tradition since those days, a half century of quietly roisterous meals that now involve Linda and me, our kids, and their attendant interests. Rod is almost 12 years fled to the afterlife, their only child, Roddy, is almost 20 years dead, Ginny has lost much of her hearing, while the rest of us have scattered here and there and (in some cases) back again – the dinners swap personnel depending on availability.
Dinner is preceded by quiet chat and as much cheese as we can stuff down in two hours. It’s a happy gathering, cut short, of course, the last couple years by pandemic concerns. But with Rod and, especially, Roddy (the best mimic and jokester I’ve ever known) gone, the core, to me, is empty. I feel like a stuffed figure in the rocker I usually choose while wolfing the cheese, less a being than an emblem.
Tomorrow our tiny tree reverts to being the Norfolk Island pine on the bathroom windowsill, and I go back to hoping it doesn’t snow as godawful much as last year.
I’m not sure what I’m a part of, what I may have lost or gained in the years of transition (everything is continually in transition). But here I am, and much (most) of my life is better than it ever was. On the days when I can’t give three cheers, I give two hearty ones, without reservation.
Sooo…the best to all of you, whatever that best may be.