This article first appeared on The Refresh and has been republished with permission.
On the first Thursday of December my mom and I would do our “Christmas walk” through Beverly Hills. Back then, Thursday was the only night stores were open past six o’clock. We’d drive the few blocks from our house and park across the street from Good Shepherd Church, the same place we parked every Sunday for Mass. The stained glass windows that lined the side of the church looked spooky in the dark, but the two Mission-style steeples were impressive with lights illuminating their domes and crosses. We walked a loop down Beverly Drive to Wilshire Boulevard and back up Rodeo Drive. Elaborate lighted snow-flake decorations hung from the street lamps and at either end of Wilshire Boulevard. Santa Claus, his sleigh and reindeer were suspended across the busy intersections. The bank at the corner of Beverly Drive and Wilshire had an enormous Christmas tree made of red and white lights on its roof. A giant candy cane sat on the pointed roof of Wilson’s House of Suede and Leather.
As we walked arm-in-arm, bundled up for the Southern California cold, I could finally feel the door to Christmas excitement beginning to open.
In mid-December, we would get our Christmas tree and the official holiday feel took hold. Though I loved driving around town seeing trees strapped to the roofs of station wagons, that wasn’t our tradition. We didn’t load everyone in the car and drive to a tree lot. Instead, a family friend gifted us a tree each year, one that she’d picked out and had delivered to us from a nursery. She usually called the night before to let my mom know when it would arrive, but up to that point, we were never sure if she was sending one. The later it got in the month, the more I began to fret that she had forgotten us. I pestered my mom a few times about it, only to have her remind me that even if the tree did not come, we could always buy our own. It was logical, but she missed the point that all the good trees would be gone by then.
When I would leave for school on the day the tree was coming, there would be an empty space in front of the living room window where the card table with the cane back chairs and yellow cushions normally sat. When I got home, an eight-foot Noble fir would be in its spot. I was both relieved and joyful that it had arrived. The distinctive pine scent took over the living room. Its Christmasy perfume washed over me while I inspected the tree and ultimately determined it was the best one we ever had. I couldn’t wait to get started on what came next, but didn’t want the tree trimming to be over either.
At last, when it was time for the ornaments, I dug through the boxes looking for my favorites. Removing them from the tissue they had been wrapped in felt like greeting an old friend. Each one had a story.
I tried not to be a nuisance while my brothers tested light bulbs and untangled cords, but it was hard being patient. I busied myself sifting through of the boxes of decorations and ornaments that had been brought up from the basement. When I found them, I hung the five regular-sized red felt stockings with the names of my brothers and sisters written on them in black marker, and the one four-foot red felt stocking with “The King” written on it, that we had gotten for my dad as a joke. Our stockings were usually stuffed with practical items like Lubriderm, a can of tennis balls and gum. One year, the only thing my mom put in my dad’s stocking was the small jewelry box that held a gold watch. She was proud of how clever she thought it was to put such an elaborate gift in the bottom of the ridiculous stocking. My dad was usually the one who sprung a surprise piece of jewelry on her, so he was legitimately pleased.
At last, when it was time for the ornaments, I dug through the boxes looking for my favorites. Removing them from the tissue they had been wrapped in felt like greeting an old friend. Each one had a story. The painted toilet roll with pipe a cleaner hook I made in kindergarten. The glass bulb with silver glitter swirls I made on a rainy afternoon at my friend Monica’s. The red and white toy soldier’s drum with actual tiny drum sticks tucked into a loop on the top. My sister’s construction paper frame with a photo of her and our grandfather, a piece of white yarn for its hanger. My brother’s Santa Claus with cotton ball beard that every year got a little thinner. The small pink glass bulbs that covered my parents’ flocked white tree the first Christmas after they were married in 1951. With my dad at work and my mom mostly ambivalent about tree trimming, the kids were left to do it.
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We took turns on the ladder and hung our personal favorites first, careful to remember my mom’s only rule: small ornaments at the top and bigger ones at the bottom. There was a giant hot pink ball with a paisley design made from gold twine and sequins that I hung first at the very bottom of the tree. It wasn’t especially pretty or even Christmasy, I just liked how large it was and how there was nowhere else to hang it but at the bottom. It was usually the one ornament that I placed that no one bothered to move. My painted toilet roll always started out front and center, but usually ended up tucked in the back, while the bulbs my brother preferred hung prominently in full view.
Over the years a strange, unspoken competition developed between my sister and I over who would find and hang the bell-shaped silver ornament with a cut out of a man in a sombrero playing the guitar. It was rare that I was ever the winner, but when I was, I considered it a great personal victory. Because we didn’t have an official tree topper, and because we rejected my mom’s yearly suggestion of doing a big bow, the default honors went to my sister’s angel made from some mesh that had been spray painted silver for her dress, a Styrofoam ball for her head and the always-versatile pipe-cleaner for her halo. I think my mom preferred a more elegant, less homespun aesthetic, but she never insisted on the ribbon.
After the ornaments, it was time for the tinsel. Long strings of metallic silver string that we draped by the handful on the ends of the branches. It looked nothing like the icicles it was supposed to resemble. The finishing touch was canned snow. We sprayed the branches liberally with the artificial snow until we were satisfied that it looked authentic, but could never leave well enough alone. We would “accidentally” spray too much on someone’s homemade decoration (like the angel tree topper) which ended up splattered with the white snow that permanently hardened like cement.
Christmas Eve felt like a riddle.
It meant Christmas was only one day away, but that day somehow lasted for days. I tried to keep myself busy in hopes that time would pass more quickly. I gladly joined my mom on last-minute errands to the market and drug store, taking special notice of the small spiral notebook containing our Christmas lists tucked into her purse. I was tempted to flip through to the page that said “Trish” at the top in her formal cursive to see which items she had checked off from my wish list, but never had the guts to go through with it.
When bedtime rolled around, I crossed my fingers and checked the TV Guide, hoping that A Christmas Carol would be on The Late Show. The black and white movie from 1938 would either put me to sleep or help me kill two hours. Though there is no white Christmas in Southern California, the shorter winter days made Christmas Eve feel tortuous and long. An endless day was taken over by an endless night of fitful sleep punctuated with clock watching and wondering if morning would ever arrive.
As soon as daylight peeked through the shutters in my room, I knew that finally, it was Christmas.
My morning began with the Sisyphean task of waking everyone up. As I attempted to rouse each of my siblings, they gave the same responses– they would get up when everyone else did. I made a few rounds before I’d give up, exasperated and on the verge of tears. My parents usually took mercy on me and sent me downstairs to open my stocking while I waited for the others to catch up.
Because I had spent the days leading up to Christmas carefully itemizing everything under the tree, I was always happy to find some late additions that were too big to wrap. A bike with a bow on its bell or a life-sized doll peeking out from a stack of presents. The gifts from Toy Mart were easily identified by the distinctive, kaleidoscope wrapping paper and I usually opened those last, preferring to unwrap the less fanciful items, like clothes and stationery first. It seemed like we took time to watch each other open gifts, but somehow we were finished in less than an hour. It always felt like it was over before it began. Torn wrapping paper was stuffed into a large trash bag. Ribbons were set aside on the coffee table to be saved for the next year. The area under the tree was now dotted with our individual piles of gifts. The counting of days, the stretching out time, the endless waiting was finished and it wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning yet. Invariably, as I admired my own stack of presents, a sense of melancholy arose along with the awareness that now there were three-hundred-sixty-four days until next Christmas.
I no longer experience December as an endless stretch of days that can’t get to the twenty-fifth fast enough.
In fact, as an adult it, it can feel more like a race against the clock. But, my enthusiasm for the holiday hasn’t changed. I’ve simply learned to savor the season– carrying on some traditions from my childhood while creating new ones with my husband and kids. Our tree is a mixture of ornaments the kids made or picked out and a few select ones from when I was a kid: the velvet drum, minus the drum sticks, a small pink bulb from my parents’ first tree, and a blue bulb caked in canned snow.
I still like to keep busy on Christmas Eve, making the most of the day before the big day. Our family dresses up for a nice dinner and late evening church service, after which I sometimes make my kids watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with me before they peel off to their own Christmas Eve activities. Christmas morning still starts early, but we take turns opening one gift at a time, starting with whoever is closest to the tree and then going clockwise around the room. When we are finished, there are trash bags filled with wrapping paper, and ribbons to be saved, but unlike when I was a kid, Christmas is not over.
We initiated a Christmas Day potluck dinner the year our daughter was born and tied in a tradition from my husband’s family. His grandmother had a white table cloth that everyone would sign and over the next year she took the time to cross stitch all the signatures and messages. We have a white tablecloth, some paint pens and twenty years of memories covering it, end-to-end.
As this holiday season — with all its rituals — begins, I wonder about the little moments taking shape as meaningful memories.
I think about the unseen treasures hidden in my holiday to-do list, in the boxes of ornaments and in the cupboard filled with Christmas décor. What impressions are they making on my own children? What they are experiencing as ordinary now that will become cherished traditions? Whatever that ends up being, I hope they will recognize, as I have, that the real value is in how these moments will always keep them connected to each other, to their roots.