One Way to Handle Christmas
My family was so poor in the 1950s that my drunken excuse for a father always bought our tree at a huge discount on Christmas Eve. After the bars closed. He told us kids that Santa Claus brought it at midnight, along with all of our presents. In a way, it was pretty cool because I never knew for certain whether it might be Christmas when I woke up. Stumbling around the corner, tightly clutching my robe — due to the fact that all of the heat was turned off at night and you could see your breath in the morning — I first sniffed the scent of pine needles before spotting all the decorations, the tree, and the half-chewed ribbons on the presents under it, and our dog, Lulu, slopping all of the water out of the tree stand. Christmas was a big deal.
Before global warming, we almost always had snow for Christmas in Minnesota, mounds and mounds of white, covered in a thin glaze of sugar, gleaming in the winter sun. Then, I grew up and realized how cold it is in Minnesota: bone-chilling, with iced earlobes that hurt like hell from frozen metal earrings, and snot-freezing in your nose, kind of cold. I moved to Colorado and then eventually to California, the land of Santa Clauses tied to palm trees.
I still carried on the tradition of Christmas. Some years I would fly home to Minneapolis, back when airline travel was glamorous, the golden era. Women wore hose and white gloves and little hats. I flew on the discounted student travel fare, which meant I could share the same space as those who paid 75% more and still smoke out my brains. Seats were roomy and comfortable. Today, the airlines have made travel so completely hellish that you pretty much are forced to fly business or first class if you don’t want to be stuffed into a can of sardines with the lid rolled up and locked.
If I didn’t fly home, I decorated the house and bought a Christmas tree. For my first Christmas away from home and on my own, I insisted on trudging through the woods to find a wild tree, chopped it down and hauled it home. As the years progressed, I was content to stop by a local Christmas tree stand and buy the biggest tree I could find, slap it on the roof of my car, tie myself in so I couldn’t open the doors and drive home with it.
After 30 years of this nonsense, I felt an urge to graduate to the (heaven forbid) artificial tree, but it had to be all white, flocked and enormous, which I figured would save me money year after year. As with most purchases that lose luster after a while, I began to yearn for a new tree, one not quite so big and not flocked (dropping bits the cats puked), and just plain green. A plain, artificial, green tree.
When that got to be too much work, I downsized to the four-foot tree you can buy at Target, the kind that comes with all of the lights attached, so all you have to do is a buy a box of miniature bulbs for decoration, the very same tiny bulbs the cats will knock off and bat around the house, right after they try to run up the tree.
After my mother died and we moved to Sacramento, the thought crossed my mind that we could get a smaller tree, perhaps the 10-inch-high standard issue desktop tree, but that seemed a bit ridiculous. Besides, by now I had married a Weintraub who did not share my Christmas tree traditions, which were dwindling, or personal views of Christmas, none of which was religious.
Instead, it seemed to make more sense to take a winter holiday over Christmas. Every year we go away on an extended vacation to some place exotic and warm. For many years, it had been trips to the Hawaiian Islands. In 2009, we toured Viet Nam and Cambodia. Last year it was French Polynesia. No tree. No presents. No glitz. No commercialism.
Tomorrow we go to the Florida Keys and new people move into our house to care for the cats in our absence. I wonder if our house sitters will miss the Christmas tree and decorations? They never say anything about it. I suppose they think we are both Jewish.