Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A View of Christmas Past – the Christmas Tree

Last night we saw most of A Christmas Carol on TV, one of the recent renditions, the one where Patrick Stewart played Scrooge. Can’t say that I liked it all that much compared to various other ones, but it was good to see it, the only time so far this year that we've seen the Dickens story that became the first of his many Christmas classics.

That got me thinking about Christmases past. Long past? No, my past. Specifically the Christmas tree. I’m thinking of those years when I was between 8 and 10 years old, maybe up to 12. About two or three weeks before Christmas, on a Saturday afternoon or evening, Dad would say to us three kids, "Let’s go get the Christmas tree." Each of the five of us in the family—three kids and two parents—would bring forth 20 cents from our allowance, and Dad and the kids would set off on foot, leaving Mom behind to do whatever she was doing. We walked south on Reservoir Avenue, just three or four blocks. There we found three Christmas tree lots. Normally empty lots during the year, at Christmastime they were transformed. Now, of course, the land is too valuable to let them sit idle eleven months a year, and they all have a building. But wait, this is about Christmases Past.

We went immediately to the back of the lot, where the trees of lesser quality were, trees that could be had for a dollar. Dad always picked one that was too tall for our house, and would have to be cut at the bottom and maybe even the top. It was never a great tree. The branches would be far apart and thin. But we bought it, paid our ten dimes, and carried it home. Normally we had to cross Reservoir Avenue with the tree. It was only four lanes back then, with lots less traffic. North a few blocks we walked, then on to Cottage Street, four houses down the left side, and put the tree in the garage.

The garage, you ask? Yes, for in proper British tradition (well, I think it was British; for all I know it could have just been us) the tree was not installed and decorated until Christmas Eve. So it stayed in the garage, in a bucket of water, for a week. We kids used to go out there almost every day to check it, why I don’t know. About a week before Christmas Dad moved it to the basement.

The basement, you ask? Yes. Dad felt that the tree should have a week to "get used to" the warmer temperature of the house. Plus at this time he did whatever trimming needed to be done. So we kids made our daily visit to the basement to check the tree, make sure it had plenty of water, and that nothing had gone wrong with it.

Finally on Christmas Eve, Dad brought the tree upstairs. We all helped rearrange furniture in the living room. Once on its stand, with iron weights on the legs, Dad first put the lights on. Not the miniature lights that we use today, nor all the same. No, we used a mixture of lights, probably six or eight different shapes and almost as many colors, probably acquired over many years. The bubbly lights we our favorite. Dad took lots of time to get the lights just right, clipping each one to a branch, making sure all parts of the tree were equally lit, both those parts close to the end of the branches as well as in the interior.

Then we kids did the ornaments. Following Dad's instructions, we made sure to spread then out, keeping like ornaments scattered and hanging them near the outside as well as inside of the tree. Then came the icicles. No, not the tinsel. We had what we called icicles, a solid, shiny metal piece twisted into a spiral, with a thread on one end. We hung these on the branches about two inches from the end. They were heavy enough that they would cause the branch to droop if hung too close to the end. Then came the tinsel, always the stuff left over from years of being on prior trees and salvaged at the end of a dozen previous Christmases Past. I still remember the white box it came out of on December 24 and went back into on either January 2 or 7. At the bottom of the tree, a cloth skirt of some kind, I think red, and then a lighted snowman and Santa. On the top, not a star or a bow but a spire, made like a glass ornament but designed to fit over the upward-reaching top branch.

The tree stayed up until New Years Day or, if Dad thought it was not getting too dry, until the end of the twelve days of Christmas on Epiphany. As the years went on we could no longer get a tree for a dollar, and we each had to chip in a quarter to get a tree. I think we could still get a marginal one for that price the year Mom died. Traditions didn't change too much after that, though the price of the tree kept climbing. The tree still was bought three weeks before Christmas and decorated on Christmas Eve and taken down on Epiphany. The same strings of lights went on with the same care. The same ornaments—less the one or two that broke every year—were carefully dispersed. The tinsel came out of and went back into the same white box year after year, a little bit more mashed and clumped.

The trees of those years had no theme. Their theme was that this is Christmas and we should have a tree. It should have lights—pretty lights, and pretty decorations. It should be festive rather than beautiful. It probably wasn't beautiful, but now, with fifty or so Christmases Past gone by, those trees remain beautiful in my eyes.

1 comment:

Gary said...

We used to get our tree from one of those lots when I was real young. It went in or on the station wagon for the mile and a half back to Tallman Ave. I think we recycled tinsel too -- lol.