The sounds of Christmas are once again in the air, just like they have been since the stores started their Christmas advertising back in September. Usually, as soon as the back to school sales are over and my sons are no longer spending the long lazy days of summer having long lazy days of computer games, the stores start sneaking in hints about Christmas. This year when I took the boys shopping for their back to school supplies in one of the warehouse wholesale stores, they had Christmas cards and decorations already on the shelves and it wasn’t even the middle of August. Prime time television advertising starts to include ads for toys. By Thanksgiving (the Canadian one in October) we are in full Christmas advertising overload.
I went out and cut some holly branches the other day to spruce up Christmas a bit. Living on the West Coast there is only about a 7% chance that we will have a white Christmas, so some added greenery for the season is as much as I can hope for.
I’m not sure why holly has become a traditional Christmas symbol, although now that I have mentioned that little bit of ignorance on my part, I’m sure I will get a shipload of mail explaining it to me. Did red and green become the official Christmas colors because of holly’s green leaves and red berries, or did holly become a tradition because it fit with the official colors? Not that it matters really. It’s just nice to live in a place where I can go out my front door and clip holly from the bush at the corner.
As long as my neighbor who owns the bush doesn’t see me doing it.
The house is ablaze with electricity sucking lights that I put up in November with fear and take down in January with trepidation. Hanging upside down like a bat, over the eaves, 20 feet above the rose bushes, in the rain, trying to hang a row of lights, certainly puts me in the Christmas spirit ... Not! I feel even more good will when I plug them in and find, even though I checked them first, that several of them are not lit. I usually try to get off by explaining to my sons that the blanks are necessary because I have spelled Merry Christmas in Morse code. Unfortunately my wife, the career girl guide, can read Morse code and gleefully gives her translation to the boys. Apparently it says, “Your father doesn’t have all his bulbs screwed in right.”
I once read of a man who tied himself to the back bumper of his car parked behind the house so that he wouldn't fall off the roof while he tried to string the lights. Unfortunately, just as he was trying to get the wire through the last hook, his wife came out and turned him into Lonny the Human Box Kite as she sped off to the store.
By early November we get our first injection of Christmas music. It brings back times when we walked in a winter wonderland, didn't have our two front teeth or found our mothers having an extra-marital affair with a jolly old elf. We remember the anticipation of waiting for the sound of Rudolph leading the team to your roof. By Christmas Day we will all be so fed up with Bing, and Nat, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that the meager thought of putting on Christmas songs while carving the turkey will ruin our appetites.
There are a few Christmas songs that bring back memories of more fateful Christmases past. I still break into a cold sweat every time I hear them on the radio.
"The Holly and the Ivy" takes me back to the Christmas when I was seven. It was the first year that my parents felt that my boredom tolerance could handle being taken to church at midnight. Each windowsill was decorated with sprigs of holly and ivy. My parents made sure that I was seated at the far end of the pew from the aisle. Looking back this was probably to prevent me from escaping. In doing so, they put me right beside a window ledge laden with holly leaves and berries.
As we stood through a long prayer intoned by a priest who talked so slowly he made Jimmy Stewart sound like Alvin of the Chipmunks, I decided to investigate the holly that was on the windowsill beside me. It was the real thing, thick, dark and heavy leaves. But as seven year olds will do, I investigated just a little too much and it fell to the seat of the pew in front of me. The rest of my family had their eyes closed either in prayer or asleep on their feet. Since they didn't see me do it, and I couldn't reach it to put it back, my attention span quickly took me to some other pursuit.
Only my much, much older sister saw what had happened. Neither of us could reach the branch to put it back where it belonged, so it stayed on the seat, and I went back to trying to alleviate my boredom by counting the knotholes in the wood siding.
There wasn’t much else for me to do. I couldn’t see the front of the church because the monstrous backside of Mrs. McCardle, an incredibly obese parishioner, obstructed my view.
The church was overcrowded and hot. Mrs. McCardle had removed her coat and was wearing a red Christmas satin dress that had seen a few too many Christmases. It was strained tight at every seam in her vain attempt to prove that it still fit. They were stretched almost to their breaking point by the sheer volume of humanity they were surrounding. If they had failed, the sudden release of compressed flesh might have been disastrous.
Now that I think about it, I bet my much, much older sister could have reached that holly branch, but she was also much smarter and more worldly than I, so she must have been able to foresee the entertainment potential created by the combination of that holly branch and the large specimen of humanity standing directly in front of it.
The prayer finally came to an end, and the congregation sat back down. The sharp pointed holly leaves received little or no resistance from the tight satin dress as the woman planted her ample buttocks directly onto the branch.
The next few seconds are etched indelibly in my mind, and probably in the minds of many others who were there that night. When the dried, pointed holly leaves impaled Mrs. McCardle’s bum, the church was filled with what seemed to be a multitude of not very heavenly voices. The word "Holy" boomed forth from her mouth. The word that followed however was not one you would normally expect to hear in a church.
Undoubtedly those holly leaves had given her a Christmas goose that she wouldn’t soon forget.
It’s “Oh Christmas Tree” that truly makes me shudder. My most vivid Christmas memory gets replayed in my mind every time I hear that song.
Over the years I have tried all kinds of Christmas tree stands. All of them proclaim themselves to be the best stand ever. The strength of that claim is directly proportional to the price tag. No matter how great the stand is supposed to be, I still end up with trees that lean several degrees off vertical. Even if I were to drill a hole in the floor, insert the tree and pour in a foot of concrete and I would still have to tie the top of the tree to 2 walls to prevent it from tipping.
The tree of 1985 though, was special. Despite its obvious shortcomings it will live on in family history throughout the coming generations.
The economy had hit hard that year and we were trying to cut costs wherever we could. We went to a discount tree lot offering trees from $5.99. The "trees", it turned out, were branches cut from giant fir trees. The trunks had gone off to become newsprint and Christmas cards. Someone had gotten the bright idea to sell the smaller branches as Christmas trees.
We brought our tree home. We could only hope that the boys, who were 3 and 5 at the time, would not remember what it looked like as they grew older. Unfortunately it has become indelible in all our minds.
I started the process of erecting the tree in the previous season’s rendition of "the best stand you'll ever own." I turned the holding bolts until they would turn no more. None of them had reached wood. The tree just wobbled between them. In my calm quiet manner, that has since seen my wife take the children for a long drive while I wrestle with the tree, I started hammered blocks of wood around the bottom of its trunk.
I took my youngest son, Brad, to his preschool Christmas pageant the next morning. The tree was still standing which was a good sign, but I decided to add another guy wire to the wall when we returned.
My wife was unable to attend. She has always had some psychic ability that warns her that she should be somewhere else when it is most advantageous to be somewhere else.
The children were to present a special Christmas song and dance routine written by their teacher, followed by a chorus of “Oh Cwithmath Twee” and “We With You a Mewwy Cwithmath” to close the pageant. As they sang their first number they all put on their pretend coats and hats. They put their pretend axe over their shoulder and walked across the stage to find their “Cwithmath twee.” They chopped down the tree. They put their pretend axe over one shoulder and the trunk of their tree over the other and walked back across the stage home. So far so good.
They all got down on their knees and put their tree its stand. They stood up and put the lights around it.
Brad was still on his knees.
They put on the ornaments.
Brad was still on his knees.
The put the star on top.
Brad was still on his knees.
As the rest of the children began to put pretend presents under their pretend trees, Brad, still on his knees, turned to the audience and said, in a voice that carried throughout the room, and to all the ships at sea, the words that haunt me to this day.
"I can't get this freaking twee in this freaking stand!!!"
Well, the word he used wasn’t really ‘freaking’ but another notorious word that sounds a little like ‘freaking.’
I thought that perhaps if I looked around the room pretending to see if I can figure out whose son he was, the other parents in that church basement would bypass me in their search for “that boy's” parents. All I wanted from the Santa, who was holding himself up with the wall in the corner Ho-Ho-Hoing loudly, was a bit of simple anonymity.
I had brought his brother Mike along. He stood up on his chair and loudly asked me, "Is Brad going to get in trouble for saying that?
“He really shouldn't have said, freaking tree”, should he, Dad?”
He didn’t use the word “freaking” either, rather he quoted his brother’s word to the letter and at the same volume.
“Are you going to tell Mom that he said, freaking tree’ Dad?”
Why did you call our tree “the freaking tree”, Dad?
Mom said you shouldn't have said, “freaking tree’, Dad.
She says it’s not a word to be repeated. Brad sure repeated it didn't he, Dad? Why do you have your head between your knees, Dad?"
When my wife returned home that night Mike had the story of the afternoon’s events, with appropriate emphasis on the words his brother had said, retold before she could get her coat off. After a few gasps and a stifled laugh, she gave me one of those looks that told me on which one of Santa’s lists I could find my name.
Just my freaking luck.
So here we go again. The radio will play “Oh Christmas Tree” and “The Holly and the Ivy” for the two hundredth time to remind me of the rather unique language that haunts my Christmases past; my tree will be hung from the ceiling with care; and, I can only hope the lights outside will last until Boxing Day.
Merry Christmas to all and to all good lights.