I lead a weekly group at a center for disabled adults, here in the Bay Area. Each week, we open with a prayer and we talk about something in our lives – our memories, our worries, the people we love who are no longer with us. We close with prayer.
The week before Thanksgiving, we talked about the upcoming holiday season. We remembered what the season was like for us, some of us recalling events that happened decades ago. We talked about what was hard for us during the holiday season. Each of these memories brought back the images, the laughter, and sometimes the sadness, of these times, remembered.
I always wait until everyone else has spoken to share my own answers to the questions. I remembered the yearly outing to buy the Christmas tree, years ago, when my father – he was “Dad” in our family – and one of us, or the rest of us would go to pick the Christmas tree. Winter can start early in Southeastern Wisconsin, and that fact is important to my memories. Dad was real fussy about the tree that we would choose to bring home. So we’d walk down the rows of trees, smelling the pine that was a harbinger of the season to come. Dad would stop, pull a tree that leaned against the others from the row, and hold it up – so we could get an idea of how tall it stood. When I was little, the trees were really tall – clear to the ceiling of those old Milwaukee flats. As my siblings and I left home and Mom and Dad were alone in the apartment on Appleton Avenue, the trees seemed to grow shorter. Or maybe it was me…
Finally, as we endured the cold, the smell of the fir trees, the sound of bells – always – and the darkening sky – sometimes flurries of an early snow – we’d find the right – the perfect – tree. Dad would secure it in the trunk of his Chevy BelAir, and we’d drive home.
When Suzie and I were really little, Mom and Dad decorated the tree after we went to bed on Christmas Eve – in the old-fashioned, European way – so that we awoke on Christmas morning to the beautiful, decorated, icicles hanging, thick and luscious tree in the corner of the living room. The smell of the pine needles we’d smelled in the tree lot now filled with the living room. Mom was careful about the icicles on the tree. Every evening during the season, she’d get up from her chair and arrange the hanging silver strings so that they hung perfectly, not resting on the branch below, but hanging in the air, like the huge icicles that hung from the edge of the roofs of those old Milwaukee flats. Late at night during winter, from time to time I would hear an icicle fall, flying past the window to the snow covered ground that wound around the side of the house.
As we grew older, Suzie and I helped decorate the tree, and over the years, the tree began to appear in the front window earlier and earlier in December.
Every year, the same ornaments were hung on the tree. When some of the ornaments were taken from their careful packing and placed on the tree, even when silver trees and flocked trees were popular, our house boasted an “old fashioned tree”. We never tired of it. I never tire of a green tree, recently cut, even now.
The tree stayed up, decorations and all, until Epiphany – Mom called it “Russian Christmas,” for it marks the celebration of the birth of the Christ in the Orthodox tradition of the Christian Church. Then the pain-staking job of removing the ornaments, the oval lights of many colors, and the icicles would begin, each item carefully packed in the boxes that had been around since before I was born, set aside in the attic until next year.
Next year doesn’t come anymore, at least in that old way. I still like a real tree, and the ornaments that Jeff and I remove from the boxes each come with a story, like the days when they hung on my mother’s tree. We remember who gave us the ornaments, we guess the time in our own history when they were added to the family’s tree, and we note the newer ornaments, too, those given to us by friends or the people in our parishes. Like my parents’ ornaments, each one comes out of the box with a story, and with the story, a memory. A bit of sadness comes along with the decorating of the tree, as the people we love are remembered, along with funny stories that probably weren’t funny at the time, but that make us laugh now.
This year, Jeff will hang lights on one of the trees that stand at the side of our house. We want to bring a bit of holiday light to the neighborhood, to the neighbors who pass our house every day, and to their guests. We know now that the season of the Coming of the Light is honored by many traditions, not just ours, and knowing of the festivals of others enriches our own. Here in the Bay Area, we respect these differences by saying, “Happy Holidays” to one another. Our youngest niece honors the season with her mother as they light the candles for Hanukkah on the menorah, standing next to their Christmas tree. Some of the old traditions remain; new traditions are made. On Christmas Eve, when we go to bed, I’ll leave a local radio station playing on the radio in the living room, the empty room – empty except for the beautiful tree – filled with the sound of holiday music as we sleep.
Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, December 10, 2020 – COVID Christmas Tree