December begins with a tree. Decorating the Christmas tree has been my solitary undertaking for years, since the last of the kids left home. From unfolding the branches to untangling the lights and sorting ornaments, the task is mine alone.
The soundtrack to my decorating reverie is Mantovani Christmas Carols, which was released in 1958, the year of my birth. Being by myself with Mantovani and his strings gives me a chance to ponder the origins of my many treasures. Two pewter snowflakes Dad ordered through a catalogue remind me that he was the original mail-order shopper before the Internet made it so popular. He loved ordering things from catalogues. I think I still receive catalogues because he somehow got my name onto mailing lists. Signals was a favourite. Who doesn’t need a T-shirt that says: “Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma. Commas save lives.”
Ordering became a bit of an obsession after Mom died — he was lonely and looked forward to receiving packages in the mail. When he died I switched his magazine subscriptions to my address and continued to receive them for years without having to renew. Somehow I thought his long-term subscription expiry dates would ensure he would be with us for longer.
Dad is the main reason I am unwilling to consider a real pine tree at Christmas. He spent too many agonizing holidays trying to construct the ultimate tree stand. He was not a designer, or engineer, and the one he made out of plywood paneling and filled with sand was particularly ineffective. That was probably the year we had to take a parched tree down on Boxing Day.
I used to enjoy putting silver and gold reflectors on each bulb while Dad struggled to get the tree upright, and still feel a surge of anxiety as I string my own lights, wondering if the heat will cause dry needles to ignite — a conditioned response from my youth. But trees are worry-free these days — LED lights are cool to the touch, and that always seems surprising. Some say they give off an unsatisfactory light but I enjoy their glow, and they really are economical, saving on both electricity and anxiety.
Four tiny picture-frame ornaments display photos of our children when they were small. Here’s Leigh as a little one — she’s the other reason I am slightly afraid of real trees. As a toddler she was wild and wooly, and knocked the Christmas tree down enough times for me to tire of sopping up tacky water from the beige carpet in our old house. The soft tinkling sound of breaking ornaments is how I imagine stars sound when they fall.
Leigh can’t have a Christmas tree in her home because she has two magnificent, raptor-like cats — a Bengal and a Serengeti — who can gracefully jump to the top of a door and would have no problem climbing a tree.
I have two cats as well, not as lissome as Leigh’s, but still, another reason for an artificial tree, and also why, despite my love of all things that sparkle, I cannot put tinsel on the branches. If you’ve ever pulled tinsel out of the back end of a poor feline dragging her bottom on the floor, you know what I’m talking about.
If December Christmas trees remind me of Dad, it’s December baking that reminds me of Mom. She didn’t have time for anything fancy — no rolled sugar cookies with icing, or pinwheels, or chocolate-dipped crescents. Her specialty was Christmas cake: one light, and one dark. I wonder if that was an intentional reflection of the season.
I’ve heard the jokes about fruitcake — and they are misguided. To taste the mysteries of a good fruitcake is to sink into a bliss of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, molasses, coffee and rum — as rich, complex and dark as midnight on Christmas Eve. And Mom’s light cake tasted of morning on Christmas Day, when the sky is as pink and yellow as the cherries, candied pineapple, coconut and almonds. Janice and I made the cake in November. It smells exactly as I remember, and a thick foil-wrapped wedge of it sits in my cupboard in the dark.
December brings gifts of light and dark: flaming spirits and burned-out bulbs, cakes that taste like your mother made them, but fail to bring your mother back even so. Longing and satisfaction, loneliness and togetherness, engagement and detachment, depression and hope. While these are with us throughout the year, balance becomes lost in a month of intense expectation tightly wrapped in a package that ticks down and explodes on the 25th.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a child, and no birth can be forced. It’s better to relax and just let it come, in waves of pain and joy. “Christmas sadness is often connected with obsessing on the loss of people we love,” writes John Shea. “But . . . if we seek out the life-giving spirit that flowed from them while they were in the flesh, we may find a new presence awaiting us. . . . we counter Christmas sadness with Christmas peace” (John Shea, Starlight).
My tree sheds a soft glow in the corner, and presents, some online-ordered, are wrapped beneath the tree. The Christmas cake we baked a few weeks ago has been wrapped and unwrapped many times for a small taste. The crinkly tinfoil is getting soft, and Mom is there as it glints in the kitchen light.