Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas Memories, Vol. 8

My mother had great holiday decorations. She's a decorator anyway. There are two bright orange porcelain sinks in my childhood home, chosen because they were really cool in 1976 and went with the hand-painted poppy plates in the kitchen and the earth-toned "first bathroom". But at holiday time things went crazy.

Things heated up in October with the onset of Halloween. We had pumpkins and witches and black cats printed on cardboard that could be put up around the house. There was a felt bat that could hang from the ceiling (and never screeched or got caught in my hair), and Hallmark made these cool wax candles in shapes for sitting on tables. (We never ever lit them, so there are still wax jack-o-lanterns in a box in our basement, I'm sure.)

Thanksgiving saw more of the same, including wax candle pilgrims and turkeys, as well as these FABULOUS paper honeycomb 3d turkeys. (We had pumpkins for Halloween, too, but the turkeys were the best.)

But these were just warm-ups. The day after Thanksgiving, the gloves came off and the real decorating began. Dad and I would go to the Christmas tree farm and tromp around looking for the perfect tree. Unlike dale's daddy frank (one of my favourite Christmas stories ever, FYI), Dad had a good eye...which was lucky for him, as my mother would not have settled for anything but a perfect triangle shape, not too tall, not too wide, and a straight trunk required. Yes, she actually cared about the vertical of the trunk. We were allowed one small hole in the branches because there was a giant felt Santa who could rest inside it and peek out from the inside of the tree. It usually took us a couple of hours, but we never failed. We'd hacksaw the thing down, my brother or I'd take the pointy end and Dad would take the trunk, and we'd haul it in to be measured and roped to the car. Our tree was always about six feet tall. My dad is 6'2" so I'd use him as a measure and make sure I found flaws in anything too short. (I like me a tall, tall tree, I do.)

While we were gone, Mom was getting organised. We had so many Christmas decorations that they were organised into boxes and marked "Christmas 1", "Christmas 2", and "Christmas 3" to delegate the priority in which they were brought upstairs. (Three rarely saw the light of day because we ran out of house by the time we got halfway through 2.) We'd crank up the Ray Conniff and the Carpenters Christmas albums (on vinyl or 8-track, of course,) and then get the party started.

Our tree had traditional multi-colored bulbs. My dad would spend HOURS stringing them on, or so it seemed to a child. He is an engineer and tends to do things in a methodical manner with no patience for interruption or deviation. The lights were perfectly balanced, perfectly secured to the tree, and colors were spread evenly around the tree. (He'd even have me sit back and tell him if there were too yellows or blues too close to each other and then replace the bulbs with a red or green or pink.) When and ONLY when the lights were set could we begin decorating. Mom always put her little china teapots and a few blown glass ones from her childhood on first, and that was the signal that we could start. She'd let us put the bakelite Rudolphs on, and then came the homemade ones on my tree right now, some craft fair ones, some gifts from friends, the little glass birds from the Czech store in Cedar Rapids and straw ones from Vesterheim. Mom would let us at it, but kept an eye to make sure we spread things evenly. She INSISTED we decorate the back of the tree, too, so the wall would be happy with its view. (A habit I've retained to this day.)

When the decorations were on Bob lost interest, Mom and I moved on to the rest of the house, and Dad put the tinsel on. Strand by strand, he'd dangle that stuff all over the tree...a proper frosting of silver but not too much to be tacky. It was like he went into some zen-state draping that tinsel. It took even longer than the lights, I swear.

My favourite non-tree decorations were the angel collection, the Noritake bells, and the manger scene.

Mom had about thirty angels of various materials and we'd put away her normal knickknacks and replace them with angels. They were made of glass, wax (also Hallmark candles), and porcelain, but the best ones were cardboard cones covered in velvet and rickrack with little wooden or felt heads and this weird polyester spunsilk hair. The one with the felt head had a wooden stick to keep the head upright, and you could remove it from the body and run around wielding a severed angel head on a pole. I loved that game. My mother did not.

Noritake bells were cool because we got a new one every year. They featured the twelve days of Christmas and I loved being the one that got to unpack the new one. I'm lucky I didn't have sisters, because my brother didn't really care about them once he got old enough to realise it wouldn't be cool.

The manger scene (NOT a creche) was the best of all. It didn't need was a little wooden stable on a board, with plastic characters and animals glued in place to ensure no major variation of position from year to year. There was a little lightbulb in the roof that would light the whole scene when it was plugged in, and a music box that played silent night. The roof was covered in little glued on wood shavings to make it look thatched. It was awesome. Once it was out I would sit by it for hours winding up the music box, listening to it slowly grind to a halt, and then speed up a little too much when I'd rewind it a little too tightly. I sang along under my breath, always at the speed it was playing. I'd even slow down and drop my pitch along with it. And when I was really little, I'd pick the wood shavings off the top and eat them. Yum.

About the time we finished with the rest of the house Dad was finishing with the tinsel. He'd move the TV into the living room so we could watch television AND enjoy the tree, and then we'd turn the lights out and marvel and the sparkling beauty of our handiwork.

That was the best part.


Old Lady said...

We had a manger scene similar to that. Your family's ritual is similar to mine!

Melinda June said...

So pleased to hear someone else call it a manger scene, old lady. This ritual is half of the reason why I love Christmas.

Dale said...

Nice memories Melinda June.

I'm all for the traditional multi-coloured bulbs and you're right, the ritual stringing was interminable but worth it after all.

I'm glad you enjoyed my post about my Dad's tree hunting exploits.