Today I helped my wife get the Christmas tree out of the storage room and into the living room. She'll go to work on the lights for it tomorrow, and it will be up and glowing in the living room very soon. By West Texas standards we are not early; we are, in truth, perhaps a little late.
At this point each year I think of a blend of Christmases past from my childhood. The usual thing was to go out a week or so before Christmas to one of the markets in vacant lots along Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington and buy a fir tree. Cut trees were brought in by truck from somewhere not terribly far out in the country to be sold in Arlington and the other suburbs of Boston. Then we'd lug the tree back to our place, at times a house with a porch, later an apartment with a space in the back entryway for the tree to sit and perhaps to melt off any snow that had fallen on it in the sales lot.
On Christmas Eve, early, we put the tree up and decorated it after supper, which in my father's time was per force oyster stew, although we were not always faithful to that after his death in 1941.
As we got older and were in college in the early 1940s there was a good deal of drinking, but pretty much jolly feelings, although my mother often objected that the hanging of the metal strands of tinsel got a little no, a lot sloppy along about eleven.
When we four kids were younger all the work of this evening went to my mother and father. I don't recall that, however broke we were, and we were then ferociously broke a lot, we ever missed out on the magic tree, a damp green bundle in the evening and a festival of lights early in the morning of the 25th. The tree stayed up for the "twelve days of Christmas," until Epiphany, Little Christmas so called, on January 6.
I distinctly remember the last lush Christmas. It was either 1929 or 1930, and we got a whale of a lot of expensive presents: I remember an 8-foot toboggan, an Ivor Johnson bicycle, a large Flexible Flyer sled, a little casting foundry for making toy soldiers out of type metal (the sort of thing that would give the safety mavens conniption fits today). That casting toy was for me alone, and I got years of fun out of it. Seeing the metal pour into the mold and breaking it apart to yield the little solid figures downright enchanted me, and continued to do so for years. Of course lots of clothes, but who cared about them?
In later years gifts, so far as there were any, were clothes, and one learned to be really appreciative of them the shabbier one got and the older one got. But the big thing by then was the tree, and the dinner, which took all day in the preparation and hours to consume, with talk, talk, talk among the six (later five) of us when we were alone, and among up to ten or so when we had, as we usually did, a bunch of guests, mostly college waifs stranded away from home at Christmas, and with no carfare to get home or, occasionally, no home to go to.
My mother established what has remained my standard for a holiday dinner and a holiday table. Not that I object to something different, but I think it ought to have the same measure of care and finish, whatever it is. Spoiled by Mama-san for sure. Good idea not to get into this kind of nostalgia with any Mama-sans on deck at present.
Now we come to outdoor lighting. I don't recall that anybody did much along this line until after WW II. Certainly we did not, especially not when we lived in an apartment house. But perhaps I just have forgotten what used to go on. Am I wrong when I say that both before and after WWII such outdoor lighting as there was tended to be confined to that same late-December, early-January period, at least in the Northeast?
Scene shift: Now I am in the Southwest, married to a West Texan. Here the tradition seems to be that the indoor tree and the outdoor lights go up as soon after Thanksgiving as can be arranged for amid other household chores. I protested against this: not traditional! I tried to hold to my old notions: tree up on Christmas Eve, down on Epiphany, only a little earlier for outdoor lights.
Of course what I was saying was, Not MY idea of tradition! I've battled on this front for a dozen years, but I am here today to say I have lost. The South(west) has won. And that means that LOCAL tradition has won. That now seems to me no bad thing. I've decided to shut down my complaining apparatus. I can make a great case for the Twelve Days of Christmas preceded by Advent as two distinct seasons of the Christian year. But that's not going to go over in a place where the local State University has huge six-foot Christmas wreaths spotlighted high up on the main building the day after Thanksgiving.
And I admit that the lights blazing from elaborately decorated houses and trees and shrubs up and down the streets all over town all during this dreariest month of the calendar year do cheer one up. Just this year they seem to me to have a special meaning: despite the war and all that's wrong, the festive lights are still lit. They even seem to me to strike a note of defiance: things are not right but we'll pretend they are. Perhaps that's just my imagination, but I'm content with it.
Come December 2l, the sun, weakening every day since June 21 will turn north again, God willing, as it always has, and the days will grow longer. Just knowing we've turned that corner will improve things, and nobody is saying I can't have my Advent and Twelve Days just as I remember them.
December 8, 2003