Published December 24. 2010 4:00AM
I don't recall the year this particular Christmas stuck in my mind, but I believe I was about 8 years old, which would make it around 1960. It doesn't really matter. All that matters is that it was a memorable Christmas.
It was a cold, gray Saturday two weeks before Christmas. This Saturday was very special because we were attending the VFW Christmas party in the afternoon, complete with black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons, Santa on the porch, sleigh bells ringing and a bag of toys in Santa's hand.
Before we left for the party, our family tradition was to pick out our Christmas tree so it would have time to thaw and be ready to decorate that evening. We piled into our white Rambler station wagon, which was on its last legs, and we went into town.
Driving along in this rickety car, all of us children were talking at once and interrupting each other. We were, quite frankly, driving Dad nuts, and his impatience was starting to show. Mom, of course, was smart: She stayed home to get the living room ready for the big arrival.
We finally got to our destination: the VFW tree lot where the local veterans sold trees to make extra money. We all tumbled excitedly out of the car. This was going to be a long ordeal for my father, who was already freezing, because we must pick out the BEST tree. While he encouraged us to "hurry up," we, of course, were dawdling.
Hurry? We can't hurry! Picking out the right tree was a time-consuming affair, and one must get the tree that was the right height AND in the correct price range.
My brother ran to the first group of trees and found one. He stared at it with such intensity that my sister and I ran to check it out.
We had to decide whether this tree had our name on it. My father carefully turned it, and our heads went from right to left as we chatted about the ornaments and how it would look in the living room.
Was this "frozen wonder" the right one? Did it have perfect needles and a top that would hold the tree topper Mom and Dad bought at the dime store? Would the tree be too large for the tree stand?
We decided it was perfect. We prayed that Dad didn't bend any of the branches or lose any of the needles as he tied it to the top of the car for its journey home.
Home at last, Dad got out the tree stand, the one he'd made while in the submarine service out of a torpedo tube. There wasn't one like it in the world.
Of course, the aggravation of shaving the trunk to fit was more than we could take, but after many words (it goes without saying they were "bad" words), the tree was in the stand.
The magnificent tree was erected, a monument that would grace our living room until New Years Day. My father smiled, and it was off to the party so the thawing process could begin.
Four hours later, we were home again. Dad was feeling good. A bit of Christmas cheer had warmed his bones and improved his mood.
He put the lights on the tree, checking for any that had mysteriously burned out while sitting in the attic. He checked the wires that were frayed, wrapping them with electrical tape. A few more "bad" words were said, but then the job was completed.
We now began the decorating process. We stared at the tree and, with the lights on, we couldn't believe how beautiful it was. There were little snowball covers on each light.
"Best tree in town," I wagered.
We all began tearing into the boxes of ornaments amid cries of, "Be careful. We've had those longer than you kids have been alive!" And then we heard the annual story of how our parents didn't have a car when they were first married, and how they walked to Woolworth's to buy the ornaments.
Each ornament had a history, the plastic Santa and the angels, the glass ornaments from Germany. Each ornament was meticulously put on the tree.
And then the dreaded tinsel hanging began. I say "dreaded," because it could be such a boring chore for a child. Although when finished it gave the tree an icy sparkle, we only wanted to get it over with.
We took handfuls of tinsel and started putting it on, piece by piece. Getting tired, however, we started taking handfuls and throwing it on, much to my dad's chagrin. He had lost his patience, the glow of Christmas cheer now gone, and he became a chief in the Navy again: "If you can't hang it right, don't hang it at all!"
We all decided that his idea was a good one, and we gave Dad the job. We only wanted to see the finished product, and besides there was plenty going on in the rest of the house.
Mom was in the kitchen baking her famous fruitcake and chip and cherry cake. She had already set up the snow scene — my absolute favorite. If only I could shrink down in size so I could travel through the billowing mountains of cotton puffs, walk into the plastic, lighted church that we all wound up so it constantly played Silent Night, and perhaps talk to the wax carolers standing motionless on the front steps.
The manger scene was the final task, and Mom set it up under the Christmas tree where the lights gave it a soft glow. This was what the true meaning of Christmas was all about, and we kids knew this, but jeez — it was such a boring item to trifle with at the time.
The only thing left to do was to clean the messy house.
The day had been wonderful, and we had two more weeks to stare at our work of art. Two more weeks to wait and wonder what Santa would bring. Two more weeks of parties, new dresses (made by my mother to match her own), gifts and friends.
If only the Christmas spirit could stay all year.
Now, as the fire starts to dwindle, and only dying embers are in the grate, this memory makes me smile and remember. There will be another night, another fire, and another memory that I will have, because isn't this what sustains us all?
Save happy memories for your children to pass on to their families. You won't be sorry. My parents gave us what they could with minimal money — memories that we cherish.