The Ghost of Christmas Past

Before I married Kim I had an outsider’s view of Christmas. I suppose in some ways I still do. I thought the celebration was too much about opening presents and not enough about the deeper spiritual meaning of Christmas. I suppose I still do but it’s more complicated than that.

The most meaningful presents are opened year after year days before Christmas and carefully rewrapped for the following year. I remember our first Christmas on East 128th street when Kim asked me to bring the ornaments down from the attic. She had boxes and boxes of ornaments that took up an entire section of our attic.

I watched as she carefully unwrapped boxes inside of boxes. She lit up as she opened each one.

“This is from my grandmother,” she’d say. She’d tell me a story about each ornament, about the person who gave it to her, or of some memory triggered by the ornament. Weird name for them. Christmas tree ornaments. Christmas tree decorations. They are central to the holiday and not mere ornaments or decorations.

One by one she lifted an ornament out of the protective padding, found a place for it on the tree, and returned the tissue paper to the little box for later. The tree with all of the familiar decorations and the ties to other times and places is an anchor. It places this year in the context of Christmases gone by.

The next year she bought me some cooking ornaments at Williams-Sonoma. Each year I now had a place on the Christmas tree. I got into the spirit and bought some Pooh ornaments to add to the collection. We bought ornaments for the girls – many of them celebrated their Chinese zodiac signs. Rats for Maggie and rabbits for Elena.

Each year Kim couldn’t wait to decorate the tree. For Kim, much of the joy of Christmas was centered around the opening of boxes. Not the gifts “found” under the tree but these ornaments carried down from the attic each year. After Christmas she’d carefully repack each ornament in its little box, give it one more look, and then close the lid.

Not this year.

Maggie told Kim’s mother that she was worried that Kim wouldn’t be able to bring herself to buy and decorate a tree this year. Kim’s mom bought Maggie a silver table-top artificial tree that Maggie and Kim put in the window months ago. Maggie decorated it with lights and extra large round ornaments with no sentimental value what-so-ever.

That might have been it for the year but back in October Maggie wrote a reminder in Kim’s appointment calendar: “Buy tree. Decorate tree.”

The Sunday before Christmas we had a Chanukah party at our house with latkes for friends and family. We went out and bought the Christmas tree on Saturday so that it would be up before people came over. “Buy tree.” Check.

The tree sat largely undecorated for a week. Maggie placed one or two of the extra large round ornaments on the tree and wrapped a large red chain of beads around the tree about half way to the top. For days Kim looked at the tree and said, “we have to decorate it.”

“We don’t have to do anything,” I said. “If it’s going to upset you too much, don’t decorate it this year.”

“I have to,” she said.

“You don’t,” I insisted.

She shook her head. We were in the kitchen and she motioned me towards the phone and said, “look.” I didn’t see what she meant. She flipped open her appointment book and there were the reminders from Maggie. Wow. What ten year old thinks to do that.

Kim brought down a couple of boxes and asked me to bring down one other. She and Maggie put the ornaments up on tree. There were more boxes upstairs – but this is enough for this year. A tree filled with memories. Not just the ornaments bought for Maggie and for Elena but the ornaments Kim had already decided she would pass on to each girl when they were old enough to have their own tree in their own homes.

I looked over the fireplace and started. I don’t know which would have been harder to see – a lone stocking for Maggie or two stockings. No right answers. No way to know what you should do.

Kim had hung two stockings, one of which would be filled with candy and toys and the other filled with just memories.

Ghosts of Christmas past.

Published in: on December 23, 2006 at 12:17 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Okay Daniel, you got me. I’m sitting here in tears (again). I’m just realizing that Christmas was finally mended for me only this year.

    My Dad died on Thanksgiving Day seven years ago and after the Memorial (which we did in LA in early December) my family found ourselves adrift in the Christmas season without much stamina to keep up with it all. It was decided to hold family Christmas at my brother’s house in San Francisco so my Mom would have somewhere to go. I couldn’t even put up a tree in our house in Sunnyvale. We all concentrated on making Christmas not too terrible. This was a tall order.

    Christmas had always been about Daddy. He loved it, went completely overboard on it every year as if doing so would help banish the scarcity of his own childhood. Every year he went to get a fresh cut tree (he loved the way it smelled in the house) and he and I hung lights and everybody did the ornaments. He had to do the tinsel, though (and there *had* to be tinsel). We had a next-door neighbor with a stunning collection of very old glass ornaments from Eastern Europe which she kept in suitcases and every one had a name and a story. We were starting from scratch to build a similar tradition by getting or making a special ornament for both of us kids each year and Dad loved to watch us place them. He kept that tree watered and lit up all through the Christmas season and it never failed that on Christmas morning we would find a huge pile of presents under it. He must have kept them at his office until it was time to bring them home Christmas Eve…some had obviously been acquired many months before if for instance I fancied something pretty and handmade at a Country Fair we visited in June. We never found out where the stash was. We searched the house especially in the days leading up to Christmas and never found it.

    My Godparents used to come over to help out in the all-night wrapping marathon on Christmas Eve (held after we’d gone to bed). They didn’t have kids of their own to spoil. They would play Christmas music on the stereo (or watch TV if White Christmas was on…it was his absolute favorite Christmas movie) and hang out together working on the surprises in store for us. Of course there were bicycles to put together. There were elaborately wrapped boxes within boxes so we couldn’t guess by size what was coming. And they ate the cookies and drank the milk we left on the hearth for “Santa” long after we knew that Santa was really Daddy. He always left a note, usually a clever one.

    Some years before his death Dad announced that he had enough stuff and we shouldn’t worry about presents for him. He just wanted to wear the Santa hat that allowed him to fish presents out from under the tree and bring them over to us (including my Mom, who he loved to spoil too). He was increasingly wirey in his old age and looked like the Grinch in the Hat. Last would be the stockings which were hung on the hearth. Often the best presents were hidden in them…treasures handed down like my Grandmother’s garnet earrings or the keys to my brother’s first car (which was parked outside).

    Up until my Dad died, I had spent every Christmas of my entire life at my parents house (where I was born) pursuing these traditions. I even came home from the Peace Corps for Christmas. Every Christmas but one, the first year I was married. We were just starting out and both working in the Stock Market in San Francisco and that year Christmas fell on a Thursday. Federal Law keeps financial institutions open on the Friday after a Thursday Christmas (they can’t be closed more than three days in a row) so we couldn’t get down to LA until Friday night at the earliest.

    I decorated a little tree at our house and snuck my few presents to my husband under it on Christmas Eve after he was sleeping (I’d hidden them of course) and the next morning he was appropriately surprised…but there was no Grinch and I missed my family. About 10am I put a rented tape of White Christmas on our TV and sat there trying not to cry and the phone rang. It was my Dad (he had amazing timing). Why was I sniffling? I told him it didn’t feel like Christmas yet to me and he said, “Well, its not Christmas yet until you get down here. Its all waiting for you here, honey”. He’d just moved it one day. He was Santa, he could do that.

    I found out years later that my mother-in-law was really put off by what she thought was the crass commercialism of Chrismas at our house. It was traditional for us to take in “strays” and my Mom always had a stash of nice wrapped “generic” presents to make them feel at home with us. This lent the impression that it was all about the presents. For us Christmas is a time when it feels good to give (and receive) but mostly to be together around that tree, but some folks misunderstood what was really going on. I can see how they could get the wrong idea…there was a whole lot of torn wrapping paper.

    For our first Christmas without Dad, my Mom brought up a box of our special ornaments. She meant them to be divided between Dan and me after this one Christmas, but I never claimed mine. They seemed to belong together.

    In the ensuing years we’ve mostly had what feel to me like escapist Christmases on the road (in Texas, at the home of my husband’s family or at some vacation spot). They’ve been good times but not “home” times. Partly because I travel so much and am always barely home in time to leave for a Christmas trip, we haven’t had a tree in our house again until this year (a surprise from my son and husband on Christmas Eve, which was lovely).

    This year our actual Christmas Morning was at my brother’s house again and I got to see our childhood ornaments on a tree. It was fun explaining them to my new sister-in-law who keeps them now. My son wore the Santa hat and tried for a Grinchey look. It was more like Christmas than any we’ve had since we lost Dad.

    I think you’re right, Daniel…it may be all about the tree.

  2. Very nice story – thanks

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