Part One of Four–My Story
As a Christian, I have often lamented the commercialization and capitalization of Christmas. As a Jew, I have learned to see the season as a celebration of light and miracles in the midst of darkness and oppression. As a historian, I have embraced the combination of the pagan roots behind the celebration of continuing of life in the midst of the deep-winter and the anticipation of the lengthening of days bringing back light, warmth, and renewed life. Among many schools of thought and perspectives, I am finding my place among the deep-seated traditions embraced by my ancestors, both Jewish and Christian, along with the winter celebrations of pagans and skeptics.
Which brings me to Christmas trees.
While the history of the Christmas tree is vague and can’t necessarily be pinned down to one particular historical event or individual, the evergreen itself has held a more reliable place in the season’s celebrations. Most historians agree that the tree itself is a much more recent custom with strong ties to Christianity. So instead of deliberation the origins of the tree itself, I’m choosing to go with the legend which so strongly ties to my German-Lutheran roots: Martin Luther’s story.
The story goes that Martin Luther encountered a snow-crusted evergreen while walking one moonlit winter night. The sight of the snow glimmering on the branches of the tree in the light of the moon dazzled Luther, and he was inspired to bring a similar tree indoors where he affixed candles to the boughs of the tree and lit them at night as a way to bring light and hope into the home during the Christmas season. There are several other legends, most occurring in centuries previous to Martin Luther, and I assume that today’s Christmas tree is probably the descendant of all, or at least most, of them.
Whatever the reasons for putting a decorated evergreen into the home, the Christmas tree has become a staple of the season. No matter the circumstances, it just doesn’t seem like Christmas without one.
My early childhood Christmases were filled with happiness and wonder. But at least two in a row stood apart for me as a deep disappointment and loss of faith in the magic of childish imagination.
The first disappointments came just after my eighth and ninth birthdays beginning on the Christmas Eve when my sister offhandedly told me that there was really no Santa. I had begun the day with eager anticipation of the magical event to be coming late that night, but went to bed in deep sorrow knowing that my big sister was downstairs with my parents laying out gifts and filling stockings in the guise of a great man who really didn’t exist. Naturally following, but much easier to reconcile, were the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I was still mired in that disappointment when the next Christmas came and went, despite the bounty of gifts appearing beneath the tree and the wonderful treats in my stocking. Surely the next year would be better. After all, I was growing up, and beginning to understand that sooner or later childhood must end.
Ready as I was to accept no Santa, my eleventh year was even tougher. In the spring of 1973, five kids and our parents moved into a nineteen-foot trailer deep in the Oquirrh mountains of Utah so my father could be closer to the construction site of our new home. Despite my ever widening Christmas comfort zone, that tiny camping trailer sitting beside a boxed-in cement foundation at least a mile from the nearest neighbor was not the place for a traditional Christmas. There was no room for a Christmas tree, let alone presents. To make matters worse, there was no snow that year– the only Christmas in my young memory I had ever experienced without snow. No one dreams of a brown Christmas.
It was worse for the whole family because the building project, so carefully planned out, was unexpectedly caught in the midst of a world-wide recession caused by an oil embargo from a land far, far away. Prices of lumber doubled nearly overnight, and though my father had already received a large delivery of lumber for the house, the remaining lumber and building materials had not yet been paid for. Suddenly the building project was no longer feasible within the funds set aside, and Dad would have to take out a loan for the rest. Exacerbating the problem were interest rates on construction loans. They had gone up even more steeply than the price of materials.
On Christmas Eve, I prepared for bed in very cramped quarters with a heavy heart. Mom and Dad told us that things would be tight that year, and to keep our expectations low. I could see how Dad was stressing over finances, so asked for binder paper.
I’m not kidding.
The good news was, we would save money on a tree.
A few days before Christmas, Mom brought a tiny “tree” into the trailer and set it atop our extremely limited counter space. I could not stretch my limited imagination to see the twelve-inch foam cone with butterscotch disks attached as any sort of tree, especially a Christmas tree. First of all, trees are green, not school bus yellow. God bless the poor family friend who made it for us. I know butterscotch tastes better, but couldn’t they have attached peppermint candies? At least peppermint looks Christmassy.
All Over but the Shouting
Okay, there was no shouting, but I probably shed a few tears in private.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived, I was really regretting my request for paper. All of my siblings had at least asked for something that they wanted. As we prepared for bed, the roar of a motorcycle and a jingling of bells could be heard. Then a knock at the door.
Was it actually possible that carolers had decided to come up and down the winding hills via motorcycle? Nope. But Santa did. Along with his girlfriend. We were presented with a sack full of treats and presents and then with a Ho Ho Ho, he hopped back on his ride and headed back down the hill. No sleigh, no reindeer, and no helmet. I wonder how he could see under all that fake hair.
When we unwrapped gifts early the next morning, there was my binder paper, just as I’d asked, along with a handful of two-player games and some much needed clothes. I was disappointed that the only gift I’d really had to myself was that paper. I considered the games family gifts. After all, if I wanted to play them, I’d have to ask a family member to play along.
It wasn’t terrible. I mean, Connect Four is kinda fun. I don’t even remember what the other games were, but I do remember that my favorite gift that year was some much needed clothes. The binder paper got played with more than the games, I’m afraid.
I remember watching my brothers and sister playing with their requested toys, and having a great time. I put on my poker face and tried to be happy, but I know I spent a lot of that day drawing and writing on my paper. Believe it or not, I already had a passion for writing by then. Too bad I never caught the math bug.
I digress. Math has nothing to do with this.
We had our traditional family dinner, and I know the food was awesome, but I was glad when the day was over. I figured New Year’s Eve would be better. At least we didn’t have to worry about where to put a tree or presents. It probably even snowed at least a little in the week between Christmas and the New Year.
Mom made her famous clam dip served with chips and crackers. There was eggnog in the two-and-a-half foot refrigerator and 7 Up cooling on the doorstep waiting for the midnight “toast.” I was so excited for the eggnog, but I’ve never been a late nighter, so I told my family to wake me up if I dozed off. I think I fell asleep around 10 PM. No one woke me up, and in the morning all of the eggnog was gone and the remaining 7 Up had lost its fizz.
Maybe next year.
The next December Dad lost his job.
–To be continued tomorrow with Mom’s Story.