(This piece previously appeared in Clever magazine.)
My wife refuses to let me be the one to put lights on our Christmas tree each year. She says I’m still too haunted by my father’s traditions even though my father has not walked the earth for lo these 25 years. My father loved a big and therefore heavy Christmas tree. This isn’t a problem for most people. They cut off the lower branches, stick the tree firmly down into the bottom of a heavy-duty stand, tighten the screws and presto, a stable tree. But my father insisted on saving the lower branches. Fir branches all the way down to the floor were to him the Mona Lisa that he strove to paint each Yuletide. But these same gorgeous branches prevented the trunk from reaching the bottom of the stand. So each December my father’s four sons began a search in the scrap lumber pile, the toy box, and the garage for the exact combination of wood blocks and shims to fill the gap between trunk and stand. This was not an easy mission, and each failed attempt unleashed a barrage of my father’s cursing that I still associate with Christmas to this day. Presents, special foods, cold weather, carols, and Christmas cursing. Most memorably, one year the perfect last piece of my father’s Jenga shim tower turned out to be a rusty axe head. Not surprisingly, this particular tree fell over the next day and then a second time the day after that. But my father still protected his masterpiece. A little fishing line from tree top to a hook newly screwed into the wall and voilà—low branches and stability.
My mother, for her part, had a holiday gift for pushing herself past the point of exhaustion, and it was a point of pride for her to be so exhausted on Christmas day that she would usually collapse by early afternoon, just after preparing her usual sumptuous Christmas dinner feast. My mother saw Christmas as something she—and she alone—had to “put together,” as if it were a child’s cardboard play set with 300 tabs needing to be fitted into 300 slots. At Thanksgiving she’d say, “Here it is almost December, and I’ve hardly begun putting Christmas together.” About two weeks before C-Day, she’d nearly be in tears lamenting, “I just don’t see how I’m going to put Christmas together this year.” She always wanted to give perfect gifts, which she envisioned as not only something the recipient really wanted but also as something that would be a big surprise, preferably an outrageous surprise. Despite this emphasis on surprise, she always asked me what I wanted. I remember one exchange when I was in my forties, and my mother was in her seventies.
Mother: I was thinking that for Christmas you might like something for your garden. How about a gazing ball or a light-up garden gnome?
Me: No thank you. I don’t really like man-made stuff in my garden. I love flowers and flowering trees. I’ve been wanting a weeping cherry tree.
Mother: How would I get that to you?
Me: The nursery here has some. You could just give me the money and I’ll go get one.
Mother: That’s no fun.
Me: So you want it to be something fun for you to give?
Mother: No, I want you to get what you want.
Me: I’d love the money for a weeping cherry tree.
Mother: How about a nice gazing ball?
My mother loved little children, and she never admitted to herself that her sons grew up. One Christmas when I was ten, I enjoyed playing with a paddle ball toy I had received in my stocking. So my mother continued giving me a Bo-Lo or Fli-Back paddle ball every Christmas until I was well into my thirties. And even after all of us were grown, my mother continued to hide our Christmas gifts so our little-boy surprise would not be spoiled when we visited her in December. As a result, she spent a lot of time the last week before Christmas in frustration and panic trying to find gifts she knew she’d purchased. What she had so carefully “put together” was once again falling apart.
Our traditions did not entirely ignore the true meaning of Christmas. One year, father and sons nailed together a crude four-poster stable frame. The foldable metal legs of a TV tray stand and a couple of rectangles of thin plywood served as the manger. We spread brown pine straw on top of the stable and also used it to pad the manger, bought a couple of feet of burlap for swaddling clothes, and lit the scene with a staked blue floodlight. All we needed was a baby Jesus, which we began an earnest search for. No stuffed plush animal seemed suitable, but we finally found a no-longer-used doll—a foot-long plastic Dennis the Menace doll with a hole in one toe and with bright yellow paint over wavy ridges on his head serving as hair, “hair” which included a large hooked cowlick. Surely at one time Dennis had had clothes, but by the time we pressed him into service as our holiday-display messiah, he was an eyeful of pink plastic nakedness. But, then, once we swaddled his body, who would ever know? Except for that head. Our golden-haired, cowlicked, freckle-faced Jesus.
All of my mother’s decorating, elaborate gift-wrapping, and special-food cooking led inevitably to another Spencer childhood Christmas tradition—what my father called the Merry Christmas Garbage Parade. The volume of our holiday garbage vastly overwhelmed our garbage-can capacity, so we would gather up a metaphorical parade of trash-filled bags and boxes and set out like magi on an unwise and illegal quest bearing “gifts” for an out-of-the-way, unwatched dumpster behind a shopping center or school. I was otherwise quite law-abiding, so these journeys always filled me with the excited fear of being caught by the authorities. To this day, nothing brings back my childhood spirit of Christmas so much as the stealthy commission of misdemeanor. And, really, how else am I going to be able to dispose of an oversized garish garden gnome?
So, yes, I’m still haunted by ghosts of Christmases Past—by images of maternal excess and exhaustion, by memories of Christmas cursing and petit crime—but my parents loved Christmas in their own ways and loved their sons. Their spirits will always be their gift to me, will always be a part of my Christmas Present.
Photo credit: Farzad Sadjadi