The countdown to Christmas is always a joyous time, except for when it isn’t. Of course time passes with every nanosecond, but at certain times you notice it more, and Christmas is now at the forefront of my consciousness.
As I sit inside my empty house with its festive holiday decor, echoes of days gone by — felt rather than heard — fade like carolers who close their songbooks and disappear into the night.
My grandparents were so involved in my upbringing in Texas in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Every year Nana, along with our mother, would take me and my sister to the Joske’s department store in downtown San Antonio, where we’d ride the miniature train through an elaborate Fantasyland display. Nana and Pawpaw were always taking us places, and I remember all those times when we’d go to visit Santa Claus. I’d ask how Santa could be at Joske’s, but also at Sears, and I guess it was Pawpaw who answered that all those other guys were “helpers,” but today we were going to see the real Santa at Sears!
In my early years, we had the fake tree that you see in the photo above. That coffee table the tree is sitting on would go with me to college before ending its days in a dump somewhere, but the fake tree was gone long before that. Eventually we started buying real trees, and I remember cold December days trying to pick out the best one. Daddy would fume that one tree was as good as another, but the rest of us would insist on seeing them all. We’d walk slowly through the Christmas tree lot examining each tree while drinking hot Dr Pepper drawn from a coffee urn. It was a Texas thang!
After getting home, there was always at least one fight when we couldn’t get the tree to stand up straight. Daddy would get frustrated and storm out of the room, leaving Mama to string the lights. But once that was done, everyone would return and we’d hang the ornaments. My favorite was made of blue plastic with a tiny red propeller inside. Placed above an incandescent light that was about as big as your thumb, the heat from the bulb would rise through the ornament housing and cause the propeller to slowly spin, like magic.
Where Christmas in America is concerned, I suppose there are two kinds of families, Christmas Eve families and Christmas Day families, and ours was a Christmas Eve family, meaning we always opened our presents on Christmas Eve.
Nana and Pawpaw would come over, and we’d sit a spell before it was decided that Pawpaw and Daddy needed to make an urgent trip to the icehouse — one of those Texas institutions that are a cross between a convenience store and a neighborhood bar. I couldn’t figure out why a block of ice was suddenly needed, but what they were really doing was retrieving presents from Nana and Pawpaw’s house. Once they returned, we’d be hustled into a bedroom to await the arrival of Santa Claus. Meanwhile, most of the adults were busy placing the presents under the tree, though Daddy would sometimes go up on the roof and stomp around, making us think that Santa and his reindeer had finally arrived!
All those loving Christmas conspirators are gone now, though they still flit like ghosts through a living room bedecked with their memories. But truth is, things were changing for me even before they were gone; one thing about Christmas, when you get married, things are going to be different. My wife comes from a Christmas Day family!
Our first Christmas, in fact, was spent alone on our honeymoon in Big Bend National Park. We got married about a week before Christmas, and my mother thoughtfully packed some of her own memories into a small box of Christmas ornaments and gave them to us to take along. She wanted us to have something to begin with, and so we did. With my new wife in Big Bend, I found a dead stalk from an agave cactus and dragged it into our motel room. There, we decorated it with those baubles from my family’s past, and so for our first Christmas we were alone, and we were fine.
For a time after that, we lived in our beloved New Mexico, where Mary’s step-grandmother, Ruby, hand-painted some Christmas tree ornaments with scenes from those beautiful landscapes. Ruby, too, is now gone, but her memory hangs on my tree every year. She’s one of the many ghosts of Christmas past that sleep in boxes in the attic for most of the year, but begin to stir again each season when the leaves outdoors turn a brittle brown and fall lifeless to the ground.
In the quiet of my living room I can see and hear them all. There’s Daddy, mimicking the sounds of reindeer landing on the roof of a house a couple of thousand miles from here and a lifetime ago. I see the love shine from my mother’s eyes as the wan light of a winter sun reflects from an ornament she gave us almost 40 years ago, and which once hung from a dry cactus stalk.
Mama’s memory, too, is alive in the ceramic Nativity she made for us, which is carefully packed and repacked every year, its value more precious to me than words can say. I’m already pondering who will inherit it one day.
For my wife and me, children came and children went, and those children today are with their own families, preparing their own traditions, including Hanukkah for one of them. It’s all as it should be, but each child left cherished bits of themselves behind.
Protected inside a cedar chest are their Christmas stockings, which won’t be hung by the chimney with care, not this year. But here, in its usual spot on the wall is Rebekah’s Grinch, a child’s art project made from a woman’s nylon stocking, a coat hanger, and bits of construction paper and cotton balls. School-made ornaments from each child hang on the tree, along with mementos of their lives growing up.
My wife and I will be alone this year, and that, too, is as it should be, a natural progression and nothing we haven’t done before. We had invitations but turned them down, having been away from home at Christmas for three years running. This time it will be just us, alone with our memories.
Our tree looks real, but was made in China, and from it comes no fresh-pine scent. From where I sit, I can see my favorite ornament, placed once more in a prominent spot. It hangs unmoving above an LED light that produces no heat. But when I close my eyes, that red propeller spins, enlivened, perhaps, by a gentle breath from my ghosts of Christmas past.