Monthly Archives: December 2014

O Christmas Tree

Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree has always confused me a little.  I don’t know if it was a symptom of being in a regimented, military family or just the fact that over half of us were decidedlycharlie brown xmas treeType A personalities,  but there was no way our family tree ever would have resembled the “sad little tree” from the movie.  Christmas was always a happy, much-anticipated holiday, but there were Certain Unbreakable Rules for the tree that somehow were just understood.  It might or might not be the case that if any of these rules had been broken, Santa would somehow miss our house for the year.

My kindred Type A brethren might recognize some of these Tree Do’s and Don’ts (can I get an Amen up in here?):

  1. The tree can be real or artificial, cut or live, but it must be green.  Pink, white, or other rainbow-hued Christmas trees do not occur in nature; thus, they will not occur in the house.
  2. No matter what tools, props, or physical contortions are necessary, the tree must be straight.  Plumb lines can be dropped from the top of the ladder if necessary.  You can turn the “bad side” towards the wall, but from top to bottom, no tilting allowed.
  3. Lights must be evenly spaced and working.  Steady or twinkling–either is ok–but dark spaces or blank spots practically negate Christmas altogether.
  4. This should go without saying (*smh*), but a tree should be a tree, not a string of ropes on a wall, not a triangular stack of 7-UP bottles, or any other non-tree, Pinterest-inspired creation.  And for goodness sake, it should not be hung upside-down from the ceiling!  How can you lie underneath the branches on Christmas Eve dreaming of presents when you’re looking at the pointy top instead of the broad underside of the tree?  Answer:  You cannot.
  5. If you MUST use tinsel (or icicles), and I am strongly against it, it cannot be clumped and thrown on in bunches.  Even if it takes two entire tedious days, tinsel must be placed strand-by-strand on the branches, to give the effect of shimmering snow.  If you have animals prone to eating this surgery-inducing stuff or a vacuum cleaner that recoils and refuses to work at the sight of it, be sensible and banish it forever from your Christmas tradition.
  6. A word about garland.   Shiny metallic garland is tinsel’s country cousin.  No. Just no.  If you must string something, go old-fashioned and make some popcorn strings or cranberries (but not if you have hungry pets).  Or go with felt balls, wooden beads, or possibly wide, wired ribbon.  It’s just extra work because the swags must be even and spaced correctly from top to bottom or it’ll look like a badly wrapped gift.
  7. Ornaments can be lots of things–handmade, glass-blown, kid crafts, or whatever, but they, too, must be spaced evenly around the tree so that it’s balanced.  Noticing a spacing theme yet?  If you let your children decorate it, everything will be hung on the bottom third of the tree, within their reach only.  If you have very small children or persistent cats or puppies that want to eat everything, you’ll tend to decorate only the top third of the tree.  Just like middle children, the middle third of the tree cannot be neglected because the rest demands attention!   Balance.  As with the lights, no big empty spaces and no bunches or clumps.
  8. Colors must mix.  Don’t put all the red balls together in one spot.  They’ve been stored in boxes all year and this is the one time they get to come out and mingle with others.  Be sensitive to their feelings.
  9. What goes on top?  So many options—angel, bow, star, weird vintage spire–any of these work.  Whichever you choose must be proportional to your tree, and the top branch has to be sturdy enough to–wait for it–remain straight (see #2).  Don’t tie a tiny red bow on a 9 foot tree.  Don’t put a huge, hulking angel on a little 3-foot table topper.
  10. Timing.  For the true Type A person, Christmas trees cannot be seen before Thanksgiving.  Even if they’re banging away on the attic door like someone’s crazy locked-away aunt, begging to be let out, do not give in.  It’s an abomination. Conversely, they must be down and re-stowed before the New Year.  Lights left on the outside of the house after this point mark you as lazy and oblivious.

If you want to be all like “Oh, family is more important than doing it right” and “Christmas should be fun and free-spirited,” then be my guest.  Go ahead:  wake up Christmas morning to your haphazard, crazy pink tree and go through the motions, but we’ll all know it won’t really be Christmas at your house.  Me, I’ll be basking in the balance and greenery, carefully un-taping the paper on the presents and saving the bows for next year.

Two Turtle Doves

DOVEThe best Christmas gift I ever received wasn’t a Christmas gift at all, but a spontaneous, compassionate gesture from a friend of a friend.  When I was a kid, if you came running into the house all hot and sweaty from playing outside in the Florida heat, it was a good bet you could find my mom in front of her sewing machine, probably with some Anne Murray playing on the stereo.

She, like her mother before her, made things:  all of our curtains and throw pillows, assorted matching dresses for my sisters, dolls and Santas, bunnies and birds.  The tip of the middle finger on her left hand was a rough, pitted mess from hand-stitching quilts from leftover fabrics that were stacked in bins in her sewing room.  When she brushed and smoothed my hair, that finger would always snag and catch on a few strands.

She sold some of these creations in a local shop and did some by special order for weddings or showers.  Old metal tins full of buttons and other sewing notions were stacked on the shelf above her machine.  My dad, always handy, made a pegboard where she hung ribbon, thread, and other mysterious trappings of her craft like scissors with notched edges, bobbins, and colored chalk for marking patterns.  He fashioned a whole organized storage system out of little International Coffee tins, which were mounted on a shelf, their plastic lids revealing the contents.   I would sit reading or doodling at her feet listening to the rhythmic buzz-buzz-buzz of the sewing machine as she worked.  I imagined stories of British children named Simplicity and Butterick, named after the patterns filed in boxes under her table.  We’d spend hours like this, until she’d glance at the clock and see it was almost time for my father to get home.  She’d push aside what she’d been working on and head for the kitchen to start dinner.

I never learned a single stitch.  In junior high I had a home economics class (do they even have those anymore?) where I had to make an item of clothing.  My halter top was uneven and hung crooked, and that was after hours of tears of anger and frustration.   She did manage to show me how to sew on a button, my one sewing ability.  But sitting at the sewing machine and pushing that foot pedal that made the needle go up and down at a dizzying speed reminded me of my father’s table saw and conjured thoughts of heinous injuries.   I just couldn’t do it.

Twenty-one years ago in October we lost mom to cancer.  Two months later it was Christmas time and unthinkable to get together for family celebrations without her.  I was mopey and depressed, angry that people had the nerve to just keep marching right on shopping and baking and decorating when for me, the whole world had just come to a screeching halt.  Joy to the World?  No way.

My best friend was home for the holiday, and we ended up at her house.  I think we were supposed to pick some of her sister’s friends up and go see a movie, not that there was anything worth seeing.  The Edlin’s lived across the street from my friend.  We walked over in the cold December night and knocked on their festive holiday door.  I tried my best to be friendly, or at least civil, while we waited for everyone to get their coats.   I felt isolated and lonely, even (or especially) amid the crowd, and I wandered off to look at their Christmas tree sparkling in the corner.

Mrs. Edlin (Helen) must have seen me there and she came over to give me a hug.  It was then I noticed them.  On her tree were two of my mother’s doves–one red, one white.  Immediately I was transported back to underneath the sewing machine, seeing my mother’s hand-drawn patterns of the little birds and the bin of  wings just waiting to be attached.  “Oh!” I said, “My mom made those!”  They were some of her best sellers–all sold out around town.

She nodded.  “I found them at the shop by the park,” she said.  “They were so cute.”  I didn’t register what she was doing as she unhooked them from the tree.  She held the pair of doves in her hands.  “Of course you need these,” she said, holding them out to me.

She had no idea as she handed them over that she’d just given me back Christmas.  That simple, unselfish gesture melted some of the ice that had been growing steadily thicker around my heart.  Without words,  I gave her a tearful hug as a thank you, completely inadequate considering what she’d just handed me.

Every year since then, I open the boxes as they come down from the attic and search for the doves.  They are the first to go on the tree.  Sometimes you don’t even notice them, nestled in the branches, but I know they’re there.   On quiet evenings when it’s just me at home with a good book, I’ll sit by the tree and admire the twinkling lights and ornaments.  When I see the doves perched in the tree, of course I always think of mom, her talent and creativity.  But I also think of Mrs. Edlin.  I’d like her to know I’m paying it forward.   I try each year to give spontaneously and unselfishly, often to someone I hardly know.  I’ve heard a lot lately that you never know how some small thing you do might be a giant thing in someone else’s life.  The thing is that I know that very well.   Once upon a time my Christmas miracle was two turtle doves.