My mother, who was generally rather over-the-top even in the best of times, did not believe in frugality and understatement when it came to Christmas, and especially regarding the tree. The whole point of Christmas was to go overboard in as many ways as possible. Besides, winters could be so dreary and bland.
Our Christmas trees were always natural, sold from a supermarket parking lot- a process which involved as much haggling as the purchase of a used car. Following this, our newly-adopted tree had to be tied down onto the roof of our station wagon. This was as logistically involved as whaling. It took all hands to get the evergreen into the house and cradled in the stand, turned this way and that to display its best side, like a fat lady in a bathing suit. (Two aspirins make it keep longer, my mother would remind us every year.) After that my father was sensible enough to leave my mother to it. His job was done.
Our family dog, Charlie, was a clever beast and somehow he understood that, although this was clearly a tree, it was not to be used for peeing as any other outdoor tree might be. How he figured that out I cannot imagine. However, the white blanket we used year to cover the stand never came up with any suspicious stains.
All the ornaments and accessories, accumulated year after year and stored in the attic, had to be brought down and the operation would then began in earnest. And it was indeed quite an ordeal, one which my mother supervised and directed like some allied commander. First came our crowning serenely-smiling angel who, over the years, became more more haggard and balding. Then came the strings of lights, both flashing and continuous, then the boa-like ropes of tinsel (usually silver or blue, but sometimes red and gold) then the countless ornaments, followed by the tufts of fake silver icicles and lastly a heavy shroud of “angel hair” over the whole thing.
(As children, we were strictly forbidden to touch the spun glass. I suppose my mother thought we might mistake it for cotton candy and try to eat a handful.)
When operation was done, the end result was a cross between a slumbering yeti in drag and a home-made wedding cake. Both impressive and slightly freakish. Without the lights, the thing was positively frightening. The moment came when, with great courage, my father told us all to stand back as he plugged the lights in. A moment of great tension. I guess my parents feared the string of lights would begin exploding, sending shards of colored glass into our eyes. That never happened, of course. The fourth of July and Christmas stayed well apart.
But when the lights winked and shone through the illusionary circles of angel hair, and as the scent of the pine slowly filled the house, my mother would stand back and critically stare for a minute, a cigarette in hand, and then move on the next Christmas task. Usually, that meant finding the Burl Ives, Kitty Wells and Elvis Presley Christmas albums.
Our next door neighbors, the Statens, were, by contrast, very subdued as far as their Christmas trees. (Of course, even the Catholic Church in Rome was more subdued than our home.) This low-key approach to Christmas struck me as peculiar and suspicious, since Fay was extroverted in most other ways. Their tree was an artificial tree, a mere waist-high, all silver with a small collection of blue bells. Beneath the tree, she had a display light with a slowly turning disk that changed colors. And, of course, a small star on the top. And that was it. It resembled an ad from the Aluminum industry rather than a celebration of the holy days.
For them, the Christmas holiday was not a particularly happy time of year. It reminded them of family estrangements and unresolved conflicts, telephone calls that were secretly anticipated- but were never placed. There had been a son, Mike, from a previous marriage who had run away from home after some ugly scenes with his stepfather. I had met him only once or twice before he left for good when he was about 17, and he had seemed nice enough to me as a kid. I only recall him having very black hair and a thick moustache at such a young age.
However, he had, according to my mother, been in and out of trouble with the law for years, got mixed up with the proverbial wrong crowd, and with drugs. He would appear unexpectedly to ask for money, making promises nobody believed. Always picking himself up from the ashes of his latest fiasco, always needing a bit more cash to start another new direction in his life. His appearance would inevitably set up a predictable series of events, divisions between stepfather and son, then between husband and wife, questions of loyalty, a mother's love and broken trusts. Silence and emptiness at Christmas time seemed preferable, I suppose.
All that talk of closeness and family and the songs about love and goodwill came to them as mocking jib, and an indirect and cruel judgment on their on their own family problems and their personal failings. Christmas would be replaced by his boozy twin sister, New Year's Eve and then the whole holiday bit would be done with, with only the barren vista of frozen January and arctic February to look out upon. As soon as that ordeal was over, their artifical tree would be put away, its duty done for another year.