We have lived in many houses over the 30 years that My Husband and I have been married. And I have decorated every single one of those houses at Christmastime.
It began in “The Mouse House” in Palo Alto, for that first married Christmas together, when My Husband was starting business school, and I had a new job, and we didn’t have the money or the vacation days to come back East for Christmas with our families. His family came out to visit us instead, and I was a Christmas hostess for the first time. My first Christmas Pancake.
We moved back East two years later, and into to our first real home, an apartment on New York’s West Side. We brought two babies home to that little apartment over the next five years. I put up a tree each year even though we traveled with our infants and toddlers for Christmas celebrations with the grandparents and cousins in Cleveland or Philadelphia. There was a stellar home shop on Amsterdam Avenue and West 79th Street in those days, with a distinctive collection of Christmas ornaments. People would actually line up on the sidewalk outside in December, waiting for their chance to get inside the tiny shop and view the offerings. I added some unique ornaments to my collection in those years!
We decided we had outgrown that New York apartment when The Boy, our third child, was on the way, so we moved into a family house in the New Jersey suburbs. And I had banister to decorate for the first time. We began spending Christmas in our own house then, not because of the banister, but so that our children could come downstairs on little slippered feet, in their Carter’s zip sleepers or Hanna Andersson pajamas, and find that Santa had visited.
Pajamas on Christmas morning are a very important part of childhood. A dear friend discovered Christopher Radko about then, and started selling his ornaments. Thus the birth of my Radko collection.
We moved to London in the late 1990’s, and we occupied three different town houses over the twelve years we were there. All those floors? All those decorating possibilities! And the banisters were sublime. (One thing I will say, about photographs on Christmas morning… children in their pajamas look charming; sleepy teenagers are not as happy to have their tousled hair and random sleeping attire captured on film.) We moved back into the same New Jersey house twelve years later. And yes, I still knew where all the Christmas decorations should be. Now here I am decorating our Boston apartment for the first time. Just an observation: each house has had a perfect spot for the Christmas tree.
There are rewards, and challenges, to decorating against this changing Christmas backdrop.
But to start with, let’s be honest.
I LIKE decorating the house for Christmas. I have always enjoyed collecting special ornaments for the tree, for the table, for the mantlepieces, from the first European glass pine cones and birds I found over by the Stanford Shopping Mall.
I’ll admit that I have amassed a large collection over the years. And while it might be a pain to lug the worn cardboard Christmas storage boxes down from the attic, or up from the cellar, or over from the storage locker, once the boxes are in the house, and in the living room, I always enjoy unwrapping these treasures. There is a real ceremony to it, unwrapping each piece, unfolding the thin tissue paper sheaths (some tissue as soft as silk from years of hands wrapping and unwrapping), or unpacking the cotton wadding that has cocooned ornaments through the year.
Each packing carton is actually a Chinese puzzle of smaller boxes, the product of my previous year’s post-Christmas sorting logic. Wooden animals? Christopher Radko glass balls?
UK inspired ornaments,
and Santas and houses for the mantlepiece,
garlands and gingerbread ornaments for the stair railings…. In a new home, every piece will have to find its perfect spot. I will have to put the puzzle together in another way.
How is it possible that each year I am surprised a little by what I find in the Christmas cartons? How can I have forgotten the charm of The Girl’s collection of Muffy Bears, in those ever changing annual costumes,
or the vivid coloration of Radko’s Little Gems,
or the Candyland delight of the garlanded banister?
Perhaps the annual sense of surprise is part of the gift of Christmas, rediscovering (at least for this once-and-future-Mom), all over again as if for the first time, the memories and the delights of our Christmas tradition, the tradition that I myself have created over the years. And then there is the act – of decorating the place, staging the scene, where it will all happen. For let’s agree that this, your Christmas decorated living room, your garlanded front hall, and your cozy, beribboned library, is ‘home’. This is where the family will gather, where the fire will sparkle and the tree will twinkle, as you sip your rum punch and nibble your cheese straws, where all of your family will be filled with the tingle of anticipation, for the gifts of company and thoughtfulness that you will exchange, at Christmas, from under and around the tree.
Perhaps this is even more true in the ephemeral world of the afterhood Mom, where grown children come and go in inexplicable moments, and always at the vanishing point. This is where the new, brief Christmas memories will be made, to add to the historical garland.
I had planned to decorate the tree as a family this past Sunday, while also baking cheese straws, and squeezing citrus fruit for the traditional rum punch, as companion activities. On Saturday My Husband and I visited the storage space we have been renting since our move to Boston in May, and we looked for all the Christmas boxes that were supposed to have been positioned close to the front entry to the locker by the moving men. I found several boxes, each labelled and re-labelled with magic marker, through the years of post-Christmas re-packing and moving house-to-house. I knew that I didn’t have them all. There was at least one large carton missing, maybe two. Were they possibly and unfortunately tucked somewhere back behind the other cartons of books and photographs and papers and children’s furniture in storage until our grown children move into bigger apartments of their own? In the end we took what we could find and packed it into the car. Nothing else would have fit anyway.
Then we successfully located a splendid specimen of a tree, a Noble Fir over ten feet tall, to grace the gorgeous bay window of our new living room. This tree was netted and corralled onto the roof of the car with the help of the tree-salesman, and roped down securely.
We realized we were going to need help, so The Boy was called, and jogged over from Beacon Hill, to assist in the job of manhandling the tree up the servants’ stairs of this old building. It was too tall for the elevator. Between them, My Husband and The Boy managed the steep back stairs, leaving only a small trail of pine needles, in case they needed to find their way back…. With their guidance, the Christmas tree socketed perfectly into the center of the cast iron tree stand, and they had it standing, tall and centered, in the window bay in no time. Gorgeous. There is really nothing like the smell of the tree in the house.
But Sunday brought only two of our three children to the house for baking and decorating. Overnight The Boy had succumbed to a bad cold, and lay in his bed with body aches and chills. He said what he needed most was to sleep. I was so sad to have him absent from my plan, but he’d made a valuable contribution getting the tree into position. He will see it, after.
As I opened the cartons, and began to take out smaller boxes and unwrap the ornaments, the truth became apparent. There was indeed a box of ornaments missing – the box with the Christmas lights!
Have you ever tried to buy Christmas tree lights the weekend before Christmas? I would not advise it. Strings of small white lights were completely sold out at Target, at Walmart, at Home Depot, at Lowe’s. So on Sunday The Eldest, The Girl and I baked cheese straws, and squeezed citrus juice for rum punch (an activity transformed into joyous sport by the recent purchase of the magnificent Breville citrus juicer!), and listened to Christmas carols, in the presence of the sweet-smelling, but still dark and unornamented Christmas tree. You know, it proved to be lovely family time.
On Monday My Husband manfully visited the local hardware stores, and eventually found me several boxes of small white lights. So that I could decorate the Christmas tree, all by by myself.
The tree is lovely.
And I remembered so very many special moments,
by looking at the ornaments,
one by one,
as I hung them on the Christmas tree.
Our grown children will be around this coming weekend, and through the Christmas holiday. They will tell me whether I have got it right, the tree, and all the other decorations around our new house. The Eldest, in particular, has a wonderful way of taking an audible inventory, and counting off all his favorite holiday ornaments.
Or maybe they won’t say anything at all, and I will know that all is well with our own family Christmas traditions.
All’s right with the world.