Friday, November 26, 2010

Trees, Lights and family traditions.

I just got a call.  It was Nan telling me that we're doing Mom's Christmas Tree tomorrow.  I'm due at Mom's at noon because as is tradition, I've been handed the job of doing the lights on the tree.

For my immediate family, our tree always got decorated on Thanksgiving day, after all the food and dishes had been put away, we'd start right to work on our tree because we'd have a few weeks to enjoy it until our pilgrimage down to my grandparents house for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  But, the job of decorating the tree has never been taken lightly, so to produce a high-quality tree, the job is always handed down to a young person to handle the job and give the folks who had done it in the past a rest.

Now, let's set the way back clock for about 40 years ago. Mom somehow inherited the huge job of decorating  the Christmas tree at my grandparents house from Aunt Sissy.  Who Aunt Sissy inherited the job from, I'll never know.  One day Mom just stepped up to the task and when Aunt Sissy walked in and saw Mom decorating the tree, she said, "Thank goodness, someone's taken the job," and Mom became our family's chief tree decorator, a job that lasted until I was 11, when my grandfather moved from the house on Pate Lane (yes, my family had a road named after it, besides, it was the only house on the road) to his new house in town.

As I remember, there was always a morning where my grandfather would go out with a couple of other family members and cut down the tree himself.  Yep, that's right, it was a live, sap-filled cedar tree that sat in the great room of my grandparents house, and there Mom stood in front of it with strings of lights (and remember this was a while back, so the lights weren't the high-tech fancy ones we have today).  Now, in her job as tree decorator, the biggest hurdle of all time was the daunting task of putting the lights on a 7-foot tall cedar tree that fit in the room with only an 8-foot-tall ceiling.  Thinking back, I have no earthly idea how Mom got the lights in the top of the tree, but I'm guessing there was either a ladder or a tall chair involved, but nonetheless, those lights got up there and oh, she always did such an amazing job with the difficult lights she had to deal with.  I really never saw her decorate the tree because us little folks were always kept out of the "big room" during the holidays before Christmas morning.  We'd go and peek in there, but it kind of went without saying that you didn't go in there, besides all of the action at my grandparents was always in the kitchen, so it kept us distracted over what was going on in the "Christmas Room."

But looking back, I can remember Daddy and one of my uncles always struggling to get that tree in the door, but I can only imagine Mom standing on a chair reaching up into the tree putting the lights on, getting her hands covered in sap and humming a Christmas carol or two while she was working.

I also remember the decorations she had to work with.  Oh lordy, you want to talk ewww?  Yeah, she had to deal with those cloth ornaments that were basically a Styrofoam ball covered in a weird sort of synthetic, plastic-y string on them that if they snagged on anything, from the tree to a calloused finger, it would pull apart.  When I think about them, my skin kind of crawls, but much less to say, Mom made it work and she made it work beautifully.  There were a few glass balls that she'd put on the tree, but mostly a lot of the ornaments were either those Styrofoam balls from hell or they were ones that us littleun's made for our grandparents.  

After all the decorations would go on, then came the garlands and the icicles, those little pieces of stringy tinsel that you place on the branches.  Yep, there was a lot of stuff that went on that tree.  As I recall, the trees themselves weren't ever that great, but when Mom got done decorating it, it might as well have been the tree in New York's Rockefeller Center.  It just turned out that good. 

Another family tradition was "The Candy Box."  This neat little invention came by way of my Aunt Sissy as well.  See, Uncle Bill owned a pharmacy so they'd save up pill bottle boxes and they'd become our candy boxes.  You want to talk having your eyes bulge out of your sockets?  Try this one...

The candy box structure was rather unique.  If you would cross-section the foot tall by about a foot-and-a-half wide box, it would look like this:

  1. Unwrapped goodies, such as small toys, Barbie clothes, or a coloring book or crayons.
  2. Fruit, consisting of a couple of apples, oranges and a banana or two (no doubt this was Mom's doing).
  3. Candy.  Lots of candy.  Individually wrapped peppermints, butterscotch, mini-Snickers, mini-Almond Joy, mini-Mounds, rolls of Lifesavers, individually wrapped Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey's kisses, mini-Hershey's Chocolate bars...Gods, there was so much in there, I can't even remember it all...but think about it this way, if there was an individually wrapped type of candy, it was in there.  SO much candy it makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it.
  4. Nuts 
  5. and a small piece of aluminum foil at the bottom.
Now if you imagine it in just the way my little list is written out, you'll get a really good idea what those candy boxes were like.  Seriously, that numbered list and how the item about the candy is written out, no joke, that's how much candy was in that box.

I mean these things were HUGE!  Imagine a 6-year-old, 50 pound Sheri walking in to see that on Christmas morning.  As a child I remember my eyes bulging out of their sockets when I saw that.  A couple of times I even found stuffed animals on top of my candy box.

Now, how the candy boxes were constructed, I have no idea.  All I remember is my mother taking me out to the mobile home (that Uncle David had brought out to my grandparents house to put us up for the week), and putting me to bed around 8 p.m.  This is apparently when the "elves" being my parents plus the rest of Dad's family would get together and do the boxes.

Ok, now's the time to explain to you how big my family is.  In my family you have to talk in Star Trek's "Borg" designations.  Remember Seven of Nine?  If you do, you're with the program.

Dad is Fourth of Five.  That's right, he's got three older sisters and one younger brother.  Putting us all together, including my grandparents, it totaled 22 people in one house.  Go ahead, give the "Oh Sh*t" that inevitably comes with me telling people how large my family is. I have nine cousins.  NINE.  So imagine my grandmother's long kitchen table covered in boxes, foil, bags upon bags of candy, fruit and nuts.  I remember my parents coming in long past midnight after they had finished visiting and laughing putting together the boxes.  After the boxes were finished, everyone went home, only to return the next morning at 7 a.m. 

Christmas morning was always amazing.  It was when we'd be treated to breakfast made by my grandfather and my Aunts.  Aunt Bonnie's AWESOME scrambled eggs, my grandfather's special orange juice that was always SO amazing, sausage, bacon, toast, sweet rolls, anything we wanted, and it was laid out in this huge spread.  We ate our fill and if we finished before everyone else, we were watched closely because NO ONE got into the big room filled with Christmas presents until it was time.  The adults literally assigned a door monitor for the room.  If we little people got too close to the door, we were immediately herded back in with everyone else in the kitchen.  There was no such thing as peeking.  You didn't have a chance to peek because when you were a little person, you were tasked with working the room and saying good morning to all of your aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

22 people under one roof for Christmas...phew! To me, that's a lot.  After we'd all had breakfast and the dishes were washed, we'd be lined up for the big moment, the opening of the big room for presents.

The tree my mother so carefully decorated sure did get a workout because beneath it's branches was modern-day consumerism gone wild.  There were presents extending from the base of the tree to easily four to five feet in front of it.  Wrapping paper of every color and description covered boxes from tiny to huge.  So many presents it was a wonder all of us fit into the room as well.

The big room on Christmas morning was divided by family.  My sister and I, along with my parents were nearest the door.  Then around the room went my Aunt Bonnie and Uncle David with their sons, Aunt Ray and Uncle Chester with their son and daughter, then Aunt Betty and Uncle Lonnie with their three if they were in town for Christmas, then came Aunt Sissy and Uncle Bill with their son, then ultimately my grandparents.

The first thing we always saw were our candy boxes.  With our name written on them, we could find our basic seating assignment and we all flopped down in front of our "loot section." Wrapping paper flew off of presents, loot was held up for display and inspection, and it was a good solid two to three hours we went through everything.  At this point, just describing it, I can only imagine how exhausted all of the adults were.  After looting and pillaging, we were sent to the showers to get pressed and dressed for Christmas Dinner.

Now imagine all of my aunts and my Mom in the kitchen on Christmas Day.  For my family, there was no such thing as "eating out" on Christmas, that just wasn't done, so you had my grandmother (when she could still walk) along with my four aunts, Mom, my cousins Anne and Ginger, and Nan all helping out.  My grandmother's kitchen was the size of my current apartment's living room and kitchen.  Still, with all those people in it, I just remember it being very cramped and every piece of counter space was at a premium.  So that meant little people like my cousin Mark and I were basically banished or told to keep from under foot while they made dinner. 

When dinner was finally served, it was a spread unlike anything I've seen before or since.  As we've gone over, there were 22 people in the house, so the "Big 12" consisting of the parents and our grandparents were at the "Big Table" in the dining room and the children all sat in the kitchen.  My cousins Sam and Mike were the eldest so they kind of acted as our ranch hands keeping all of us in check and behaving so the adults could eat in peace.

If you can imagine the holiday food, it was on those tables.  Turkey, ham, stuffing, giblet gravy, regular gravy, sweet potatoes, green rice, green beans, baked beans, oh holy lordy, if I try to describe it all, we'll be here until next week, but sufficed to say, there was SO MUCH FOOD.  After our mom's would come in, help us help our plates, the entire house became the sounds of chewing and conversation.  Down at the end of the kitchen table would be Ginger, Nan, Drew, Mark and I.  Being the two youngest in our massive brood, Mark and I were a pair of Christmas Day clowns.  We sat there stuffing our faces and inevitably, someone would have helped our plate to some black olives.  Mark and I sat at the end of the table cackling our heads off with black olives stuffed onto the tips of our fingers.  We'd be laughing, playing "See Food" and sitting there eating the olives off of our fingers.  I remember all of the bigger kids rolling their eyes and laughing at us, but we'd always have a hoot of a time.

And it all goes back to the one simple act...Mom up on a chair or ladder putting lights up on the Christmas tree.

Now, it's my job to do the lights and effectively kick off the Christmas season.  Truth be told, I'm now my family's official tree decorator.  I just hope I can hold up the tradition to it's fullest.  A beautiful tree decorated at the beginning of the holidays really does set up for the following three weeks of holiday cheer.

So for all of you decorating your trees, remember, every poke, sap covered finger and broken ornament has a reason for doing just as it did, it's there to make a memory, ones that will last a lifetime.

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