Christmas Traditions

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We threw the Christmas tree out today. I fought like a steer against throwing it out so early, but my wife pointed out, with asperity and only slight exaggeration, that there were more needles on the floor than there were on the tree, and even if I volunteered to vacuum (there was a pregnant pause at this point while she waited for me to take the hint) the tree now qualified as a fire hazard, and the cats were eating the needles and throwing them up, and….

I took the tree out.

When I was a child, we always kept our tree until the Feast of the Epiphany, the day after twelfth night. We didn’t celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany or anything like that; it was just a tradition.

Another tradition when I was a child was that there was no such thing as bad weather at Christmas. All Christmases were either white, or delightfully mild and sunny, and appropriate for outdoor activities either way. That was the tradition.

It was probably a tradition of my father’s, for it was a reflection of his disposition which was essentially, as my mother used to point out admiringly or wearily, depending on her mood, insanely optimistic.

(That phrase has stayed with me over the years and decades, and I tried once to name our little ranch The Insanely Optimistic Land and Cattle Company, and to register our brand as the I O, with its obvious double meaning. It seemed perfect to me, for we have no land and no cattle and plenty of debt, but my wife put her ears back and kiboshed the plan. She said something about it not being a positive affirmation.)

But all Christmases were traditionally full of magic and love and laughter back in that long ago, and my parents, my father dragging my pragmatic mother in his cheerful wake, went to great lengths to encourage belief in magic and miracle. The tree, always bought too tall no matter where we lived or how high the ceilings, was never delivered until Christmas Eve day, and never decorated until after my sister and I had been sent to our beds. I think the idea behind that tradition was to encourage the belief that St. Nicholas miraculously decorated the tree and filled the stockings, but it must have been a tremendous sacrifice on my parents’ part, because my sister and I were always too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve. The natural consequence was that my parents couldn’t start to decorate until after we had finally succumbed, which was invariably well after our normal bedtime, and was always followed within only a few short hours by our waking up much earlier than normal.

Their lack of sleep was further compounded by the fact that my father and mother had very strict and conflicting ideas about precisely how the tree was to be decorated and the placement of each cherished ornament. Even their individual definitions of “cherished” had to be fought out each late night Christmas Eve, and had nothing to with beauty. Worn and faded and sometimes even slightly damaged glass ornaments that had hung on my father’s childhood trees had to be given place of honor, but my mother had very strong sentimental attachments to some dreary little stick figure ornaments that had been made, impromptu, one Christmas, by my godfather out of his pipe cleaners. They had been a charming addition the first Christmas, a pleasant reminder for several following Christmases, but after about twenty years or so, reduced to bare wires that had lost their shape as well as their fuzz, they were still hung with care and honor and endless debate. It was tradition.

One Christmas, my parents finally, well after midnight, stepped back to admire the fruits of their labors and the tree apparently decided to follow them. As they watched, it slowly and gracefully fell at their feet, the floor had to be mopped, broken ornaments discarded, and the whole thing done over again. Since one of the traditional rituals of this Christmas Eve ceremony was their fortifying themselves with an eggnog so potent it was dangerously combustible, the following morning that particular year was a cross between celebration and obsequies.

Many years later, long after my sister and I were grown and out of college and even married, my father would grumble happily about how we had kept our touching faith in St. Nicholas just to get out of the decorating duties. Since the first time this statement was made was while we were in the process of battling over the placement of the damned pipe cleaners, it is clear there was no truth to it, but my father and mother both, quite rightly, never allowed truth to interfere with a good punch line. That too was traditional.

In actual fact, any belief I might have had in St. Nick had been lost very young.

In a completely unsuccessful effort to give themselves a few more minutes of sleep, my parents had resorted to hanging our stocking on the ends of our beds. The tradition—another Christmas tradition—was that we were allowed to open and play with anything in our stockings, and then we could go downstairs and look at what St. Nick had done to the tree, but we weren’t allowed to open any of the presents under the tree until the whole family was together. This delaying tactic usually resulted in an extra sixty to ninety seconds of sleep for my poor parents. It also meant that after the tree was finally decorated, they had to sneak in and fill our stockings before they could collapse into bed.

I was five or six years old and I must have been even more excited than usual and sleeping very lightly because I was awakened by whispering. I thought it must be St. Nick, and I froze in fear. St. Nicholas, as he existed in our house, was not the same thing as the benign and corpulent Santa Claus of department stores and movies like “A Christmas Story” (“Ho! Ho! Ho! Get him off of me. He’s wet.”). Our St. Nick was something more formidable and fearsome, something unpredictable out of the unexpurgated Grimm’s, the elf illustrated by Arthur Rackham in “The Night Before Christmas,” kindly, perhaps, and well-disposed, but not to be trifled with. He might not take kindly to being discovered at his work. I cautiously and slightly opened one eye.

My mother, in a print dress and sweater, was filling the stockings while my father stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light.

There was no epiphany, no wave of disappointment at learning the truth about adult prevarication, no lifelong scarring of my nascent belief system. There wasn’t even surprise. It was simply a confirmation of something I had already intuitively known, even if it was something I had never verbalized or even thought about. And equally intuitively I knew, on some also unexpressed level, that to reveal I knew the truth about the miracle of the tree and the stockings would be an unkindness to my parents, in particular to my father, who took such delight in perpetuating the rituals and myths and magic of the season. It would have been a violation of tradition.

I never told either of my parents. I never told anyone. I never lost my delight in the season. I never lost my sense of magic and miracle. If anything, perhaps my silence gave a little something back to my parents. Perhaps it bolstered the continuity of tradition. Perhaps.

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