Last weekend, I was reading an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer when I came across a sentence mentioning that a number of years back tinsel, as it had originally been manufactured, had been taken off of the market because it contained lead. What struck me immediately was not the part about the lead but how many years it had been since I had actually strung tinsel on a Christmas tree. One of the few things that I remember about Christmas time as a child was how we all hung tinsel on the tree. The tinsel of youth was not plastic-y, but had a very metallic feel to it. It would easily tangle and usually when you went to pull one strand out of the pack, you would have to shake it loose from all of the others so that you could place it on the tree. There were two styles of tinsel decorators in the family – each of which reflected our personalities. There were those who liked to grab a handful and just sort of fling it up on the tree, then there were other family members like me who wanted to hang it strand by stand so that nothing overlapped and everything hung down symmetrically. The point about the tinsel is that it is one of the very few actual memories that I have of childhood Christmases, but even that memory I think was a cumulative result of the repetition of tinsel stringing year after year so that, like the strands of tinsel of the tree itself, it was one phenomena built up of many singular parts.
In addition to the tinsel, there are a few other things that I remember. There were large colored lights and bright bulbs. The bulbs were delicately made and shattered easily. You could expect at least one family member to drop one so that we had to all stop until it was cleaned up and while you felt sorry for the person who dropped it, you were glad it wasn’t you. In later years, I think we may have strung popcorn, too. Tree decoration was always a family event, though not everyone was always there.
Every Christmas also included going to Mass on Christmas morning. It was always tough to wait through Mass until we could come home and play with the toys. There were always Christmas carols our house, too, and for me the singing of Christmas carols is still one of the visceral experiences of the holidays. Even when the Masses were still in Latin I loved singing the songs.
One thing that almost everyone seems to remember from Christmas is the making of Christmas cookies. In Mary’s family it was always lebukuchen and pfeffernussse; in Lora’s it was cucidatis and gigilanis (spelled wrong, not doubt) – both invoking ethnic traditions. Our cookies were much more pedestrian. In fact, I can’t recall what they were, though I think that peanut butter and oatmeal got involved somehow. And I think there were cutouts. We always fudge made though, and somehow a fruitcake always showed up as well. I also remember the sticky mess that resulted one year when Mom tried to make divinity.
During the years that we lived with my grandparents – four in all – I can not remember a Christmas tree at all, though I am sure we must have had one. What I do remember is riding my bike to Woolworths downtown in Santa Ana to by a gift of perfume or jewelry for Mom from money that I saved up from the paper route. Perhaps the Christmas that sticks most in my childhood memories is when I was in third grade and my brother Steve in first and we both got red bicycles. It was the classic case of a kid getting exactly what they wanted.
Despite the stew that is my diminishing memory, there is one feeling that I recall quite clearly and that I think kids today must still feel. That is the feeling of waking up early in the morning – 4:30 or 5- and having to lie in bed for a tortuously long time until our parents were up. Then we would rush out high on excitement as soon as Mom or Dad would tell us it was time for us to get up and surround the tree. This past weekend, when my grandsons Connor and Andrew came over to exchange gifts, I could relate to their antsy-ness while they waited around for the adults to finish talking. When it was finally announced that it was time to go open gifts, I was right down there with them at the Christmas tree. I still remembered how that felt and didn’t want them to have to wait.