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Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

Although this is the second Christmas that Mother has not been with me, I can still hear her voice as I move through the holidays. She was very much a traditionalist, especially when it came to Christmas.

So…when I recently joined the non-traditional Floridian Christmas cult, I know she wanted to yank me by my peppermint stick striped scarf and make me come to my senses…because…at a recent yard sale I bought a flamingo hot-pink feathered Christmas tree, complete with twinkling lights. Although it was only 10 inches tall, she would have thought that I had clearly crossed to the dark side—perhaps even belonged in the same category as the Grinch.

The tree was always the star of our Christmas decorations. Choosing just the right one was a process—we traveled to many parking lots around the city that had been converted into tree lots for the season. Despite our proximity to thick forests, we never tramped through the snow to cut our own. Trees of every size lined make-shift snow fences; heavily clad men in assorted plaid wool shirts and jackets, hats with flaps, and sturdy gloves were happy to display your choice for consideration by standing the tree, tapping the trunk on the ground a few times to fully display the branches, and twisting it so that you could make sure it had a bushy front side. Trees were rarely cultivated and sheared in those days so finding the perfectly shaped tree was more of a challenge. We always chose balsam in those early years; later years saw our choice switch to Scotch pine, notorious for retaining its needles a bit longer—but, in truth, harder to decorate because of those long needles.

We could always count on one thing—somewhere between the lot and our living room the tree magically grew! What looked like a few well-formed branches suddenly turned into a sequoia as we dragged it to its place of honor. Dad always had to saw a foot or two from the trunk, an effort requiring precision since we insisted the tree must touch the ceiling. We performed the process of lying under the tree and twisting and turning the tree stand until just the right side was in the front. Confirming that we had again selected something too large for the room, Dad would have to put a rope around the trunk near the top and anchor the tree to the nearest window casing.

The decorating! After Mom dragged the cardboard boxes out from under the eaves, my sister and I were charged with untangling the lights and “testing” the strings before Dad put them on the tree. (Remember, if one light went out, the whole string went out.) We were a “large colored bulb” family—no twinkling white lights for us, even as adults. With little regard for the heat they generated or the electricity we would use, we encouraged Dad to place as many lights as possible. I think the maximum we ever squeezed into the display was seven—and that always included the one strand of bubble lights, so popular in the 1950s, that added an extra measure of joy. Once those light were on, and we spent time making sure the colors were evenly spaced, Dad beat a hasty retreat—his role in the ritual accomplished for another year.

Next, the tinsel—strings of gold foil that we had carefully wrapped around cardboard for storage. The tinsel had to be pushed to the interior of the branches, not looped on the tips of the branches for maximum reflective benefit.

The journey through the box of glass, fabric and paper ornaments always took time, as each one often evoked a story or stirred a memory of a kindergarten project, a special moment, and Christmases past. Most were various shapes of glass ornaments—a vast array of plain, flocked, mercury lined, bell shaped, round or striped, collected over a life time. Although we were a “star on top” family (no angel), the paper mache Santa that topped my very first Christmas tree was given a place of honor near the star.

Angel hair, that wispy imitation of cotton candy, was popular, but we were devotees of silver tinsel, or icicles. Each year it was very difficult to resist throwing this finishing touch on in clumps—but Mother insisted that each strand be individually placed and drawn carefully across the tip of the branch to just the right length. The very last touch was the placement of a white sheet carefully around the base of the tree, hiding the tree stand while making it very difficult to add water to the basin without making a mess. (We never had a decorative tree skirt—perhaps we thought the white sheet looked like snow.)

The Christmas tree is not exempt from trends—one of the more popular in the 1960s was the aluminum tree lit by a wheel of revolving colored panels. But Mother never abandoned her insistence on the traditional. Even when she was in assisted living and had to make a concession to using an artificial tree, the tinsel, icicles, lights and childhood ornaments remained the same.

She would have been mortified by my recent choice and, knowing mother, would have made that very clear.

Author’s notes: The Christmas Tree continues to be one of the iconic images of all things Christmas, its position reinforced by the classic melodies such as Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas, (1943). At the height of World War II, the song’s phrases such as “Please have snow and mistletoe/And presents on the tree,” spoke to soldiers fighting on all sides as the memories of their childhood traditions tugged at their hearts. What I hadn’t realized until I did a bit of research was that the centerpiece of our Christmas celebration, true to the German carol, “O, Tannenbaum, O’ Tannenbaum,” had its roots in 15th or 16th century Germany—when clearly there were no hot pink feathered trees as alternatives.