tinsel, dreidels, songs, and gin and tonicas.
I love Christmas. As a little girl, I would go to bed strangely early on Christmas Eve, like right after dinner early. And like most kids, I simply could not wait for Christmas morning. Eventually, morning would arrive. But the waiting wasn’t over. Before we could see the tree and get our hands on our presents, my three older siblings and I would have to sit on the stairs and wait as my father showered, shaved, took the dog out, got his camera ready, and made sure the lights were on. It is funny now to think about my dad; all clean-shaven wearing a flannel shirt, sitting enjoying Christmas morning while the rest of us had nary a tooth or hair brushed. And sweet too, because he really just wanted it to be perfect for us. Preparing for the big day meant taking the obligatory holiday photo. This was most likely a disaster and usually included my dad yelling at my oldest sister. She did not like getting her picture taken, and getting her to smile was not an easy task. “G-damn it, Heather,” I am quite certain was uttered a few hundred times as we posed by the fireplace or on the beach on vacation with missing teeth and awkward hairstyles. Christmas also meant all of my siblings would be home. This was awesome because I got to share a bed with Heather who went to college when I started elementary school. I thought she was cool, and I liked having her around. She mostly liked me too, although probably not very much when I said in response to her disagreeing with my choice of tinsel for the tree, "You don't get to decide, you don't live here." I suppose she was right after all, silver icicle tinsel was much better than the hairy gold tinsel I favored. When I was feeling generous at Christmas-time, I would walk into the kitchen, open up the junk drawer, and amidst the paperclips and batteries, find something like a plastic Smurf that I could wrap and then re-gift. This, I was told, “didn’t count.” (I'm thinking of trying this again this year, perhaps I can scrounge up an old Rubik's cube for my sister, Kerry, who has always been masterful with them.) These were also the days when my dad would come home from work with lots of gifts from the nice people he worked with. My mom would most likely be getting dinner ready, and perhaps mixing a gin and tonic, wearing a real Christmas sweater - not an ironic one, but a real live Christmas sweater with teddy bears and presents on it - as he walked through the door with gigantic tins of flavored popcorn and rolls of different shades of brown wrapping paper.
One year we took all that unattractive wrapping paper and had an ugliest wrapping job contest. Another year, much later, we had an ugly candle contest. Vying for the top spot in the competition were lots of little wax figurines with wicks on top of their heads. When you lit them, their faces started to melt. This was demonic and creepy, and not at all merry or bright. I also recall a festive red rat candle with beady green eyes. I think, however, that our corn on the cob won first place. I mean a life size corn candle is hard to beat.
I apologize for rambling, but I cannot write a blog about the ghost of Christmas past without visiting my love of Christmas carols and hand-made ornaments. Oh and Christmas letters...maybe I'll save that one for next year.
First, ornaments. Every year, at my mom’s house, I gingerly take them out of their little boxes, and pray that I don't uncover a dead mouse. I look at the ornaments with the dorky kind of sentimentality usually reserved or made-for-T.V. holiday movies. I can't help myself, there is a whole lot of nostalgia there. I adore the pink and blue gingerbread people that a neighbor made. ( I originally thought my grandmother, "Pom Pom" made them, but the fact checker in my family, Rich, corrected me, and you don't question his memory, trust me). Each one has our names on it, and every year I have been oddly obsessed, in a disconcerting way, about making sure that my sisters and brother only hang the one on the tree with their name.
Another favorite ornament is the yellowish wooden one with the red piping around it depicting some sort of historical scene from the 1700’s. This ornament was made by Heather in Ms. Aloupis’s fourth grade class. Just today, as a matter of fact, my brother shared another interesting fact with me about Ms. Aloupis. It seems in 4th grade, when he was in her class, she spent an entire afternoon teaching the kids about none other than Charles Manson. Thank goodness they didn’t make ornaments that day.
And the caroling…oh my, the caroling...I love Christmas carols. I can hardly listen to The Christmas Song or the music from Charlie Brown without getting choked up. When I was little, my friends and I would have our parents drop us off of in a neighborhood with lots of seniors (not those in high school but rather elderly people) because we thought they might appreciate our singing the most. Sometimes I saw tears in their eyes. I hope this was due to them being touched and not us being off-key.
And lastly, I love the Nutcracker ballet; the music, the growing tree, those over-sized mice fighting with toy soldiers, and especially the dance of the Sugarplum fairy. Which reminds me, one Christmas party, about twelve years ago, I begged a male friend of ours to don a pink tutu and dance to a techno version of the song while throwing candy canes at people from our balcony. It really wasn’t too hard to get him to agree to my request. Some people laughed, but I think others were royally confused, and perhaps a little agitated with being pelted by a candy cane in the head as they tried to enjoy a nice little illegal bonfire in the middle of a group of apartments. Thank goodness, our landlords, the father and son duo who called themselves Stan Fard and Stan Ford (for some reason they didn’t want us to know they were related and clearly thought us not too smart,) didn’t find out or we would have been evicted that time for sure!
For the past 17 years, I have also celebrated Hanukkah with my husband. And for the first time since we had our son and daughter, we have our very own Christmas tree. A lovely little Frasier Fir that smells fantastic. But we call it a Holiday tree and along with the candy canes, snowmen, and Santas, are blue and silver ornaments, dreidels, and stars of David.
For a variety of reasons we have never had a tree before. One reason being that we celebrate Christmas with my family in New Jersey, and two-ish, because we are raising our kids Jewish. I was also worried about something an old curmudgeon said to me years ago when I first moved to Tampa. He told me my kids would grow up confused because I hadn't converted.
He is probably right, my kids will be confused. I mean with me as a mother...yes I am certain there will be some confusion served up piping hot and probably with a song.
But when I think of recent memories like my son teaching my siblings how to sing a song in Hebrew in front of my mom's Christmas tree, or my sister-in-law making a menorah out of cupcakes, or my husband singing the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song after passing out lyrics to his family, I see a beautiful melding and honoring of all of our customs and traditions. Some quirky, yes, but that is what makes it special.
And when I look at our holiday tree, I don't see confusion, I see love. And now I love Hanukkah too. From our mixed bag of (mashuga) nuts to yours, Happy, Healthy, Holidays!