Thursday, December 25, 2008
The First Christmas
I took the day off from work today. Didn't feel like working on Christmas Eve. It wasn't religious conviction, more the sense that I wouldn't get anything accomplished. I spent a good chunk of the day cleaning. Mid-afternoon, though, I realized that I hadn't gotten around to finishing my tree. This is the first time I've had a Christmas tree of my own since I was a little kid. My parents got my sister and I our own at some point and when the Christmas stuff came out those two little trees and our respective boxes of ornaments came with them. Mine was maybe two feet tall and had a bunch of candy canes and other candy-themed things already attached to it. A couple weeks ago I saw my old tree. I was in my parents' crawl space, helping them get out all of their Christmas stuff. I briefly thought about getting it out, bringing it with me, maybe putting it on my kitchen table. But it really seemed like too much of a hassle. I have my sister's old artificial tree. It's been up for weeks, festooned with 450 LED lights, topped by a gaudy, acrylic star with 11 more lights I found at Walgreens for eight bucks. I love lights. For the last several years I set up my parents' tree, ran the lights around it, and disappeared when the ornaments went up. I didn't care for the ornaments. My tree had a bunch of solid colored glass balls on it this morning. In a bag next to my couch were a bunch of ornaments my mom gave me when I was back home last week. They're my ornaments from when I was a kid and some ornaments from my grandmother that I don't remember ever seeing before. I pulled my old Noah's Ark out of the bag first, put it on the tree. It was my favorite ornament when I was little, red on the bottom, white and yellow on top, covered in little cartoon animal heads. In pairs, of course. I may no longer believe the story, I may wonder at how a story about god killing so many people, so many less lucky animals in a horrible way has been turned in to cartoon animals on an ornament, but it doesn't matter. The ornament has little to do with that story and for a moment I'm a kid again, excited to set up my tree, get out my ornaments, cover it in a little string of 35 multi-colored lights, tape some more to my old white bookcase. There are more. A wooden train. A toy soldier on top of a drum. A nutcracker in a blue coat. A tan teddy bear with a red bow that looks kind of like an alien. What happened between then and now? Where was that little boy who loved his Noah's Ark ornament for all of those years that I strung the lights and disappeared? I think I insulated myself from Christmas this year, really. I've had the tree up, I've bought presents, I've been to the city, twice. But the closest I came to a church sermon was listening to the Manic Street Preachers. While I was sitting in the cell phone lot at O'Hare on Christmas Eve waiting for my sister and bro-in-law I realized that the only Christmas song I had on my mp3 player was the Saw Doctors "Merry Christmas Tuam." In spite, or maybe because, of this, I was happier about Christmas this year than in a long time. There were a bunch of ornaments from my grandmother that I don't remember ever seeing. There was a little box and in it, still stapled in to little clear plastic bags, were wooden people. They're simple people, just pegs for bodies, spheres for heads, and an imagination to fill in the rest. But they're cool. I feel connected to my grandmother in a strange way. She died when I was fairly young. My memories of her are of a sallow, wrinkled woman in a nursing home who called me by my dad's name, shouted orders, and tried to hit us with boxes when we didn't do what she wanted. To this day I can't walk in to a nursing home and smell that peculiar combination of antiseptic and old age without shrinking slightly and counting down the moments until I get to leave. Apparently she wasn't much better before she began to suffer from dementia, though. She was my father's adoptive mother and never once let him forget that he wasn't quite a real member of the family, never let my mother know she was anything but unworthy of her adopted son. She was, by my parents' account, a bit shrewish and spent her days obsessed with appearing perfect and nagging her husband. For a moment this afternoon, however, I thought of my grandmother as a woman picking out wooden people to give to her grandchildren. In spite of all the stories I've heard, for a moment I wished I could know her better, remember her as something other than that scary old woman in the nursing home. There are two brand-new ornaments on my tree this year. Both came from Field's on State Street. Yeah, it's Macy's now. A couple of years ago the most storied department store in America bought out the second most storied. New York moved in to Chicago. People briefly made noises about never going to Field's now that it's Macy's, but we still do. It's too much a part of us. We used to go down to the city during the week between Christmas and New Year's. My dad worked down there and on a Friday my mother, my sister, and I would get on the train and ride it in to the city. We'd stay in the Palmer House, a grand old hotel that's now owned by Hilton. Then we'd go and look at the windows of Carson Pirie Scott on State Street (now closed). We'd look at the windows at Field's, then we'd go up and have lunch in the Walnut Room under the giant Christmas tree. My sister and I would beg our parents for Santa Bears. One year we got them. I don't know where they are now, but I still remember my Santa Bear. They had hats, like always, and red sweaters with a green pattern. The day after Thanksgiving we went in to the city with a couple cousins from out of town. I wanted an ornament to commemorate my first Christmas tree since I was a little kid, something to mark the year. I ended up with, of all things, a White Sox ornament that said nothing about when or where it came from. A week and a half later we were back. This time it was just my parents, my sister, and I. Just like old times. My parents and sister and sometimes my brother-in-law have been down there at Christmas time pretty much every year, but I've rarely joined them. I've had to work the last few years. Now I have PTO and a salary. I have the luxury of time. I was alone on the train this time. My parents are on the Union Pacific line, my sister and I on the BNSF. She comes from the end of the line, I'm more in the middle and during rush hour no trains stop for her and me. We ate lunch under the big tree in the Walnut Room. We went down to Daley Plaza for the Christkindlmart and bought hot cocoa in souvenir mugs. That's a tradition that started when I wasn't going in to the city. Then we went to our separate homes on separate trains. My mother bought everyone ornaments at Macy's. I got a black and white dog in a stocking cap. He kind of reminds me of my dog, who still lives with my parents and gets excited whenever I go back. Next year I think I'll buy another ornament. It won't have to have 2009 written on it anywhere. Someday -- maybe 2009, maybe later -- that ornament won't be a reminder of my Christmas, but a reminder of our Christmas. That ornament and the ones that follow will be a time capsule. This was our first Christmas together. This was the first year in the new house. This was the first year with the little one. This was the year we almost packed it in, called it quits. I'll tell her about Noah's Ark, about my childhood tree. I'll tell her about the dog in the stocking cap and the White Sox ornament and the eight dollar plastic Walgreen's star. She'll tell me about her special ornaments. Then all of those ornaments, the ones we have to tell each other about and the ones that need no words, will all go on the same tree. They'll mark the years, help us remember. They won't need the year or the city, either. This may be the first year that I truly understand Christmas. So wherever you are, whether you celebrate Christmas as the birth of a savior or not, whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Ramadan, Saturnalia, the birth of Mithra, or some holiday of which I'm not even aware, be of good cheer. Remember your traditions, start some new ones. Raise a toast to those you love who are and aren't with you. And remember: the antidote to insanity and commercialism isn't to stand up and preach about some sort of "true meaning of Christmas." Simply realize that buried somewhere in the insanity, in all of the decorating and cleanup, in all of the presents and dinners, in all of the production and frustration, is a moment of significance. Savor it. Put another ornament on the tree next year to remember it. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Whichever one matters to you. May it be filled with good cheer, good memories, friendship, kinship, and love.