With all-due apologies to Dylan Thomas.
As Christmas rolls around, my all-too willing mind is pulled back to Ohio, to the wide and rolling drab-colored fields dotted by stout wood copses, to the gray and leaden skies that sat like a lid on a silent universe. Snow, never early, always late, sometimes on time, would flirt with us as the holiday approached, as I shook my be-mittoned hands at the sullen heavens. My entreaties were usually met by an impassive silence from an uncaring deity, or perhaps from an ambivalent meteorological occurrence.
The first heralds of the holiest and happiest time of year always came through the small rituals that our mother would put us through, signs of the season beginning to tangibly mark the passage of the days. The all-too slow passage, as my chafing spirit marked time. But eventually, the hallowed boxes containing the harbingers of the yuletide were disinterred from their place under the basement stairs – old yellow Pittman and Davis boxes once full of grapefruit, the gift of a loving aunt some Christmases in the past. Not permitting myself to look deeper, where lay the arcane trapping that portended the day itself, I instead just drew forth the mystical maps we would wield to chart our days: our advent calendars. Germanic, covered in the blue mountains, frozen lakes, sloping roofs, glowing window panes, swelling burghers, and traipsing maids that I assumed were what made up Germany these days. The magical doors swung open, oh-so-slowly, as if caught in a time spell.
Days ticked by and the Canadian geese honked their final farewells over the frosty fence posts, winging away. Once, a neighbor offered us Canadian goose they’d shot in their cornfield – the ever-enchanting idea of a plump Christmas goose! Alas – bereft of its feathers, it was scarcely a chicken, and far stringier. The smell of burnt feathers wafted through our nostrils for the week thereafter, as if to chasten us for our Dickensian hubris.
What would a Christmas be without the tree? It wouldn’t be, it would be a mere shell of itself, ghosting along searching for rest in the lee of an exhausted New Year. We would load into dad’s rusty truck or the ancient yellow Toyota station wagon, my sisters and I, the three of us filled with the anticipatory excitement of people who would not have to shimmy twenty feet into the air to lop the top off a scotch pine with a bow saw. The man to whom that lot fell was filled with, if anything, possibly more of this anticipatory excitement than we. I don’t suppose anyone was more filled with joy about the arrival of Christmas than my father – now walking through the pine forest, tall slender trunks towering over my head, cathedral-like, while he – tall and rail-thin himself – craned his head back to look for the perfect top to grace our living room.
For all the dire warnings from my mother about finding a tree appropriate to the size of the room, perhaps even proportional, that was not an option. With frigid feet, I would kick at the blanket of pine needles as my eldest sister and father debated the merits of this tree and that. Entrusted with the wooden yardstick which I wielded as a lightsaber, slaying any weed brave enough to be left standing at this late season, I would be called forward at the time when the choice had been made, the anointed tree would be climbed and its lofty crown tossed down to us mere mortals below, by means of our bow saw-wielding father. My other sister – always cold – would complain at the tree’s massive width, a benediction to close out our ritual pilgrimage as we bumped and rumbled our way home.
The tree was always too wide – round, even, like a festive yet spiny holiday orb, heaving its heavy branches around the room after dad managed to stabilize it in its perch; incongruously, a bucket of rocks. Larger trees were tied with twine to the walls, lest it attempt to break its bonds and visit destruction on us. Once, one tree’s top did not survive the fall of its cutting, leaving a large empty bowl at the top, which my mother filled with a large cardboard angel that bore an astonishing resemblance to Barbara Streisand.
Outside, snow might fall, or it might not, as we trod the frozen fields over the remnants of the Autumn’s corn crop. Hills rolled, one after the other, disappearing into darkly wooded vales where we didn’t go because of the hillfolk, or trolls, or orcs, or just because they were too far away and we wanted to be home for dinner. Sometimes there was snow, in an idyllic frenzy of Rockwellian delight. Coming in from the cold, wet through, stomping snow off to melt and pool next to the sputtering and cracking wood stove, to emerge from the basement straight into the fray over light placement between my father and eldest sister.
There were boxes of ornaments, old, new, handmade, some scarcely recognizable for what they had once been, some bearing the scars of that time someone had used spray-on tinsel in a misbegotten attempt to be festive. Light strands – fire hazards, all – wended their way around and through the dropping branches as I was taught the cardinal rules: never hang an ornament off a wire, never put like colored ornaments and lights close by, find gaps and fill them with large ornaments, and other writs from the catechism, intoned and debated in a rabbinical intensity. Dad, mounted on a creaking ladder, hung the 1920s ornaments with his own hand, and his alone. Tinsel bedecked the boughs as I lay on the floor staring up through the ribs of the tree to where the twinkling lights disappeared into its heart, wondering whether I’d get Legos this Christmas or not. A needless wonder, as they managed to always appear, no matter how poor we were.
Records scratched and hummed as the venerable Christmas albums were played for the first time – but only when the tree had been brought in could this solemnity begin, a dictum that was so strictly enforced that I would be nearly into my third decade of life before I dared deviate. Hand-cut snowflakes spun and danced from the ceiling, inspired by the flights of hot air coming from the vents below. And underlying all was the powerful scent of pine, as my father would sit in the holy darkness, listening to Isaac Stern play Schubert’s Ave Maria and softly whistling along as he gazed into the multi-colored, brilliant fire hazard.
Smells cut curlicues through my olfactories across the spread of years. The rich pine, the earthy smell from wood being trundled into the stove, the gingerbread, the rum balls, chex mix, and the particular scents of the Christmas books emerging from their boxes – not musty, but comforting like an old friend not seen for an age. Specific books, half seemingly by Tasha Tudor, filled with corgis and carefully manicured Christmas settings; some inexplicably horrifying, such as a story of Silent Night from the perspective of the church mice, where darkness lay like an open maw and made me scream as a child. We all have unknown mysteries inside ourselves that we know not, but that our sisters will exploit for their own ends.
The wooden manger placed stolidly in front of the tree made me delve my own self for mysteries, such as, if I did a good deed – and thereby had the right to place a piece of straw in the manger – was it truly a good deed of my own small altruism, or rather a bit of John Stuart Mill’s ideas on life. Would the swaddled baby Christ that appeared on Christmas morning judge my own soul off the softness of His sleeping conditions? Had I a soul to judge, with all of twelve years on me? Mercifully, I was less beset with these worries than I was of more practical concerns, chiefly, the house burning down while we were at Christmas Eve Mass. Perhaps it would be a stray spark from some untended outlet, or perhaps the ham gently glistening in the oven would burst into a clove-filled flame, thus engulfing all that was good in my world. All while I mouthed carols dressed as one of the three wise men in blissful ignorance of the conflagration that now greedily tore through wrapping paper and turned the tree into a burning bush, from whose depths no voice spoke to tell me to save my people.
Somehow, I was always part of the pageant or an altar server and almost always ill at Christmas, an illness hardly aided by the thick clouds of incense wafted about, as if the prayers to heaven were meant instead to give full physical manifestation to the nameless anxieties carried by all children on the frosty eve of the Incarnation. These we dutifully obeyed via fits of fainting or vomiting, as the spirit moved us, while parents sang louder to cover our confusion. The organ labored to produce the calliope-like rhythm that somehow all small country church organs must produce at Christmas, lest the congregation forget what day it is, the organist maniacally plying his keys in a carefully orchestrated fervor to cover the sounds of the country church choir which was always magically just slightly off-key, and which, if you heard that noise coming from a dark alley, you would have thrown a shoe at. But we shall leave him there, to pump out his oomp-bop-bops until the last trump shall sound and until his fingers freeze in the timeless stone of ages.
The tree had not roared like a roman candle and the house sat as still and solid as Solomon in his throne of judgment, and suddenly, the evening was bright and glittering as I knew that Christmas would occur, unmarred by fire and the sword, although the latter was less feared. And yet, maybe there were orcs; one never knew. Still in our finery, for photos, where none of us were ever as Von Trapp-like as our mother wished, we would gather at table as the ham was brought forth. Leroy Anderson played as dad stole ham from my eldest sister’s plate, a tradition so old that we had forgotten its origin, but pursued it anyways, like an ancient feud between Kentucky families. Full of ham, tired, but not sleepy, I would be pushed to bed, climbing the stairs reluctantly yet eagerly, in that strange paradox of the season.
Waking, that strange phenomenon between two worlds, to the smell of bacon and sausage nestling in their frying pans as the Christmas records sounded a paen of joy up the stairs: the clarion call for my waking – yet not so for the older siblings, who would dawdle and wait, yawning in their desire for sleep which eclipsed my own material greed. I would sit, not patient, for decades, eons, even, the moss growing richly over me, until they heaved themselves from creaking beds and averred that Christmas might begin.
Presents there were. The transformation, always stunning, of the barren tree to one rich with an undergrowth of vibrant wrapping and bows. Stockings, breakfast, then presents, with steaming mulled wine held by adults, or tea, depending on who had been awake until the early hours cultivating the burgeoning crop of gifts. The Mormon Tabernacle warbled from the corner, bidding us to rejoice as we unearthed the presents. Books, primarily. Socks, sometimes. Legos, often. Toothbrushes, always, from Santa, that great proponent of dental hygiene. Cats slept on calmly on sofas while a dog would wait in shivering anticipation for dad to drop a treat, a common occurrence. Once, an owl appeared in the yard, peeved, it seemed, at being there, as I unwrapped Harry Potter books and wondered at its presence. But it had gone, perhaps to eat a mouse, as one does.
We would walk, after the festivities, to breathe in the crisp, clear air, to walk off the ham, to maybe stare into the far off graying hills to imagine that one quick stride might take us soaring across the valleys to see what we might find there. Sometimes, a stray dog might follow us, nose twitching, paws hesitant, yet always grateful for a pat and later for leftover ham, for, although told not to feed them, we would. There were always dogs around at Christmas, all shapes and sizes – some our own, and some that just happened to be there, barking and wagging their way into our hearts.
Then it was dashing back inside, leaving crystallized breath hanging in the air as mementos of our passing. Back to where the tree cast its soft and glimmering light, back to where our dad sat and looked into the depths of time as he listened to Away in the Manger. “What’s your favorite colored light on the tree?” he’d ask, every year. “Blue was always my favorite,” he’d add. And so we leave him, forever thus, deep in the sacred calm of a Christmas in Ohio.