At this this time of year, I miss Christmas’s past, those of years ago when I was a kid–and continued to miss those throughout most of my life. The excitement was greater by far then, the anticipation grew more intense by the day as Christmas drew near. There were parties to attend, presents to look forward to, and holiday spirit filled the air. Christmas carols were heard and sung everywhere I went. I even sang a few myself. The songs, and the music that went with them, seemed to cheer everyone up, seemed to trigger the transition into the holiday season beginning the day after Thanksgiving.
I especially miss the old days of Christmas in a rural area–days of my youth. Christmas meant Christmas trees each year. In the country, one does not go to a tree lot to buy a dried-out and sometimes-scraggly, exorbitantly priced Christmas tree. Instead, in rural areas one packs their recently sharpened ax, heads to the nearest wooded area, scouts out the best fir tree there, and harvests it.
Tree-cutting day is an exciting time for kids. I remember vividly, with sentimental pining, my brother Fred’s and my adventures into the woods to find the perfect tree to take home. Most times we had scouted that tree for a year or two prior to actually cutting it for Christmas–found and located it precisely during the warm summer months on the farm in Belfast, Maine.
During our summertime tree-scouting explorations we unfailingly, on our way, stopped by a bubbling, crystal-clear artesian spring–known only to us hidden in a clearing close to the edge of the woods–for a cold drink on a hot summer afternoon. Refreshed, we continued on to our future Christmas tree, or perhaps several trees of differing heights, where we cleaned anything growing nearby so it would have some sunlight and not be crowded out by the underbrush. We monitored its growth until it had reached just the right height for our living room–slightly over six feet tall.
A few weeks before Christmas, and once we deemed it the best we could find, we journeyed from our warm farmhouse, usually on a cold Sunday afternoon, across the ordinarily snowy fields (there always seemed to be snow at that time of year) to the distant woods where we axed it down, tied it to our Flexible Flyer sled, and slid it all the way home to the back porch. There we trimmed it as needed, and ceremoniously moved it to our living room. We had already stationed the Christmas decorations retrieved from the upstairs bedroom closet–placed there with sadness the prior January when we grudgingly took down our previous year’s tree, most often on New Year’s Day.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon decorating our prize tree-looping our bright blue, green, and red lighting, wrapping sequences of garland around it, and hanging fragile glass ornaments of all colors and shapes–sometimes popping and stringing popcorn for an additional homey effect. The tree, only hours before growing in thick woods, gradually morphed from its wild, natural form to a very Christmassy and fragrant addition to our cozy living room.
The final touch–the pièce de résistance–was a diminutive, white-clothed angel, wings of silk with silver glitter, which we placed on the very top spur of the tree. Our mother had died when I was four-years-old, and I always envisioned that angel as her coming to spend Christmas with her boys, perched atop the tree, smiling down, with her focused eyes keeping watch over us. I sustained that visualization from the age of about five until my last Christmas in Maine–1962, when I was seventeen.
Her presence atop our tree every Christmas never failed to give me a boundless feeling of comfort, sentience, and wellbeing. I always glanced upward on Christmas morning before opening any presents–and there she was, always, smiling down at me and assuring me I was not alone in life after all. Christmas was so much more heartening seeing that angel above my head, knowing with confidence she would be with me and guide me at all times.
A tree freshly cut from the woods always seems to smell so much better, look more Christmassy, and provide infinitely more satisfaction than one bought at an urban tree lot. Always did for me anyway. I always felt sorry for city kids who never got to experience this firsthand.
And as for Christmas, 2015, and all seventy-one Christmas’s I have lived to see, it is still the most joyful time of year for me. Always was! Oh, I have to work at it more now than ever to get even a modicum of that Christmas spirit sentiment, and buying that Christmas tree, putting it up, decorating it, and ensuring it has water every day is more of a chore now. I have gone from always having a six-to-seven footer to now a four-to-five foot tree has to do–and does.
I do have one gimmick that always seems to work if I haven’t achieved a satisfactory level of Christmas spirit–if I have not the full measure of joy in my heart I know should be there. My morale booster, if needed: I have saved every Christmas card I have ever been mailed, or acquired some other way, since the late 1960s. I have them in a box, sorted to some degree–the Hallmark’s take precedence. Those who sent me a Hallmark Christmas card, a card that had printed on the back “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best,” the slogan of Hallmark since about 1928, are people who distinguished themselves to me. I always appreciated that special card immensely with those special words. I just felt that that was exactly what those senders were saying to me personally, a Christmas message that they cared.
After nearly fifty years, since the 1960s, I have saved each and every card. I now have over five hundred and that was the last count several years ago. Each year, some December evening when the day is coming to an end, I retrieve that special box from the closet, perhaps with some Christmas carols playing in the background, an icey martini close at hand, and I open it and begin to look at all those cards. Each evokes a memory, especially if the person dated it and wrote a Christmas message in it. Those are separated from those just having a signature. Most dear to me are the ones from friends and family members who are no longer with me in person, but their cards reassure me they are present in spirit. The cards from the dead I place around my home as decorations–and memory aides of each, out of love and respect.
Now, that all may seem eccentric, it may seem peculiar, or it may seem to you as downright ridiculous. However, not to me. I began the tradition nearly fifty years ago with no intent to continue for anything other than not throwing such nice, decorative items into the trash. Each had a memory with it, each meant someone had taken their time to communicate with me no matter how distant. As time went by, each year I actually got to eagerly anticipate taking that box down and opening it. Not always, but many times there is a card in the collection from someone who no longer able to send one–the departed.
That happened the first year of having saved the cards, about twenty-five of them. As I looked at each, I came upon one which shook me to my core. Tears welled in my eyes as I read the message written so neatly, so positively, so thoughtfully almost exactly a year prior. Then he was full of life, brimming over with Christmas spirit, and never for one minute thinking, I am certain, that this would be the last card he would send me, nor I even remotely thinking that the Christmas card I grasped in my hand–trembling slightly now from the reality that is life–would earn a place of honor henceforth at Christmastime in my home.
In that moment I realized I had begun what would be a life-long tradition–for me. I knew immediately I had done the right thing and would continue to do so. It happened just that simply and just that suddenly. It is probably not for everyone; I celebrate the living who send cards, too, but I am especially devoted to those I once knew here on earth. Those I called “friend” without reservation, and those whose blood also courses my veins. At least for that very brief period every year.
I have several cards that are very special in that regard. The one I mention above, the first of the tradition, and therefore longest to be so honored. My brother, Fred, who died of cancer, my sainted Aunt Alice and, nearly sainted himself, Uncle Don, both deceased for some years now, are all family.
Although all who have died at some point over the years have their own spot, the cards of these have a place of honor in my home separate from all others. It is not a shrine of any sort, nor has their place any religious connotation. It is just something I do out of respect and in remembrance. If you came to visit me, you would see a number of Christmas cards as decorations and think nothing of it.
The process–appropriately placing each card (I do not have an overwhelming number of them.)–is no big production, requires no expense, and expends a minimal amount of time and energy. As a result, I gain touch with the past, and as I handle and place each card, separately, a glimpse of each person flashes past my eyes from the deepest recesses of my mind. In the vision, as quickly as it comes, then goes, they are all smiling, all happy, all content. By doing so each is then clearer in my mind, each renewed in my memory and thoughts that the past year may have diminished.
Think about it and, especially if you are young, begin the same tradition yourself. You will be rewarded as you get older at the wealth of memories you may have discarded as trash that such a simple habit will preserve.
My only fear is the scourge of e-cards. Have we really become so busy? Have we really become so much in need of efficiency? Have we really become so insensitive? But most excruciating, have we really become so crass?
As for Christmas, 2015, rest assured, I still “deck the halls with boughs of holly,” and never does a Christmas go by that I do not see “Mommy kissing Santa Clause underneath the mistletoe.” Those “Jingle bells, jingle bells” still “Jingle all the way!” and “Oh! What fun it is… !” Oh, I still look to the sky every Christmas eve to see if I can spot any signs of that famous reindeer I recollect singing about when I was five years old–sixty-six years ago. Gene Autry was spot-on in 1949 when he sang the words, “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history!”
Each December at this time, I am always “dreaming of a white Christmas, Just like the ones I used to know,” almost every year at my home as a kid in Belfast, Maine. Then we dreamed for snow every day until Christmas Day, and usually our dream was fulfilled. Something about snow on Christmas makes the day perfect.
The song “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby in 1942, the lyrics of which struck a chord with the soldiers fighting in the Second World War, and has continued to be especially popular with all military men and women away from home to this day. I vividly recall being in Vietnam as a United States Marine for Christmas 1968. “White Christmas,” broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, could often be heard on those little hand-held portable radios–someone always had one–and the words tugged at our heartstrings, as well as, more importantly, gave us a feeling of hope that next Christmas we would all be at home with our families in peace, not at war.