My principle memories of Christmas decorating from my childhood are of the things we did by hand. Mom would pop a big batch of popcorn, and I would take a needle and thread and create long ropes of it to drape around the tree. I would also make chains of aluminum foil to go around it as well. I don’t think I would even consider doing that now as expensive as aluminum foil is today. We also made ornaments from egg cartons with Elmer’s glue and glitter by taking the individual pieces of the carton separate from the rest and gluing them together and making them sparkle and sticking a hook in the top. We made stars with drinking straws and tinsel.
We had plenty of purchased decorations as well, of course, and we were hardly poor by any measure when I was a child. But the things we did by hand made the tree our own. We always had a real tree, and we always purchased it on the Saturday before December 15. Everyone had a stocking, and our Santa presents were placed around that with the remaining gifts, including the ones from our parents under the tree. Santa presents were generally more spectacular and never wrapped.
My sisters were excited when I was born, because it meant they got to have Santa for another twelve years. But I think we always had Santa gifts and parent gifts every year anyway. It was just a thing with us. Santa would give me a bicycle or a Lost in Space robot, and he would give my brother a new Motorcycle. We did well when I was a kid. My parents were generally in hock from Christmas to vacation and then back again over one or the other occasion. They spoiled us rotten.
After morning at our house we trekked to my father’s parents house, first at the farm in Grapevine and in later years in Irving, and we would enact the entire thing over again. Most years we took a trip to my mother’s parents in Austin as well, either just before or after Christmas for a quieter celebration at their historic old house on W31st Street.
When I was older and living with dad, and my sisters and brother had children of their own, our traditions changed a bit and became what my nieces and nephews would remember today – my mother’s fish soup on Christmas Eve and dad’s trip to Grandy’s chicken on Christmas morning for cinnamon rolls and other treats before we all ended up at his mother’s house for the big early afternoon meal and food coma. My grandmother would inevitably present one of my sisters with a handmade quilt or some other treasure that would bring them to tears.
I don’t generally join other people’s family celebrations at holidays, because my own memories are too precious to me. I’ve managed this year to enjoy the holiday as something of an attenuation. So many of those people are gone now or thousands of miles away. Last night I walked down to the community supper at the Methodist church here in town, so I could be around people and have a hot meal with company. A woman from California sat next to me with her daughter, and I struck up a conversation with her. I found myself feeling a little sad for the first time in ages. I touched ever so lightly upon that deep current of loss, and I retreated from it before it carried me very far. However, for several days now I’ve carried the image of stringing popcorn in our old kitchen on French Street with my mother, of the excitement I felt at pulling out the boxes of old family ornaments and the creche we set on the piano every year.
I never once doubted as a child that I was loved or that I was a part of something larger than myself that had its own story of which I was simply the latest expression. I had a place and a right to exist. I still have that, and I treasure it today. I can’t imagine a better gift than that at Christmas time.