We always put our tree up the day after Thanksgiving, and waiting for that day was tedious torture for me. I love Christmas decorations, and even as an adult, I am still giddy when I see an artful display of lights and sparkle. If it were up to five-year-old Cee, the tree would be up all year. I always had a countdown to the day we could put up our tree on the day after Thanksgiving.
Well, I should say that it was usually the day after Thanksgiving, but that ritual delayed in years that we traveled to see our extended family in Ohio. We did not do that often, typically opting for travel on Christmas instead of Thanksgiving and never both, which made me thankful for two things: no long car rides and none of my grandmother’s stuffing, and no delay on the pine festooning at home.
My grandmother is a terrible cook, her Thanksgiving stuffing being one of her worst offerings. It is thick and moist, the consistency of wallpaper glue, and no one—not person, not pet—liked it. The kids’ table was tucked into the breakfast nook in my grandparent’s kitchen and while the older kids talked and drank Zima with Jolly Ranchers (even though they were underage), I would cover my plate in a very large helping of stuffing, then spend the entire meal affixing random objects from the kitchen to the herbed putty, turning the plate upside and laughing maniacally as knives, soda cans, beer bottles, markers, cigarette lighters, retainers, candles, and punch-bowl ladles defied gravity.
Even if we left town for Thanksgiving, the one thing we never did, was put the tree up earlier than the day after Thanksgiving. This was one as firm a rule as “don’t put your feet on the coffee table” and “no swearing” in our household, one that could not be lifted, no matter how much I negotiated, and I did negotiate every year. I offered to carry all of the heavy boxes from the basement up the stairs myself. Nope. One year I suggested that I would do the lights myself—the dumbest of all offers I made, considering that my father is too much of a control freak to let anyone else do the lights. Still nothing. I eagerly promised to sweep up the broken glass of crushed ornaments and the fake pine needles, but they knew I was bluffing on that one.
No, they’d say. It’s not Christmas yet.
Growing up, Christmas meant different things within my nuclear family. It still does, and that’s a point of contention every year when my mother asks, “who is up for Midnight Mass?” the answer to which is always some diplomatic version of, “none of us, please stop asking.”
We were Catholic, but partially pious. We didn’t go to church every week, but we were more devout than those absent Christians the Church Ladies whispered about who claimed they were huge fans but only knew his Greatest Hits. I loathed Mass. Nearly every Saturday night our parents would threaten that we would be going; it was about 75 percent of the time they woke us for the Sunday morning torture eased by the promise of pancakes, but only after performing pew cardio of letting your fingers take a bath, genuflecting, sitting, standing, kneeling, standing, sitting, holding hands, shaking hands, walking down the aisle, genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, genuflecting again, kneeling, sitting, standing, singing, splashing your digits in water again, sprinting to the car, gripping and pulling the car handle repeatedly as if that would will it unlock, and tap dancing while muttering “pancaaakes paaancaaakes” while mom and dad stood on the church steps talking to an elder whose name they had forgotten.
One week on the way to church, my father got a flat tire. Knowing a flat meant no Mass, my sister and I cheered the misfortune from the backseat. My father groaned, pulled to the side of the road and got to work on replacing the tire. I patted my mother on the shoulder and said, “Jesus works in mysterious ways, but today, his message to us is clear! He wants us to skip mass and go straight for the pancakes!”
I discarded religion and its iconography at roughly the same age as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I kept that to myself for years, which was hard to do while attending a private Catholic school. Religion class was the most difficult. We had a long talk about what happens to our souls when we die, and even had to complete a worksheet about what sorts of things have a soul—people have souls, pets have souls, heads of lettuce do not have souls. I decided the best place to voice my agnosticism was in confession with the priest. He sat behind a screen as I anxiously chipped all of the polish off of my nails, partially due to nerves, but because as I stepped up on the altar I remembered that nail polish violated our school’s dress code and I didn’t want the Big Guy—the priest, not God himself—to see it. I hoped for hundreds of Hail Marys and Our Fathers as repentance for my confession, but instead of “randomly” selected for a Bible study group, which I attended once then habitually skipped to play basketball.
It is hypocritical in the eyes of some, my mother included, to be beg for Christmas trees, but reject religion. When my sister and I were both in our late teens, my mother told us that she would not be buying us any presents for Jesus’ birthday (she called it this frequently, preaching not so subtlety to her heathens) if we didn’t make an attempt to believe again. We, of course, didn’t start believing again, and there were still presents underneath the tree for us that year. As a détente, we went to Midnight Mass with our mother, which she repeatedly reminded us was the best gift that she got that year. She smiled proudly as her children sang the loudest of anyone in the Church that night, choosing to ignore the fact that she heard us wagering in the car which one of could sing the loudest and most off-key during Mass.
“You sang so loud even Jesus could hear you,” she said sarcastically as we sprinted to the car, just as we’d done as children.
I think about this every year when I crave a Christmas tree—a flash of guilt when I put up stockings, knowing that there will always be a piece of my mother that is disappointed that we’ve rebuked our upbringing in some respects. Even though I’m an adult now, I still get those anxious feelings about putting up the Christmas tree. When I saw my first Christmas lights of the year—this time on Michigan Avenue instead of my own living room—I asked myself what it is about lights that still fills me with childlike wonderment. I am not just easily amused, rather nostalgic for my childhood and my family. My mother has not been in great health for most of my life and there is always that fear she won’t be around much longer, but I am fortunate that it is just a fear and not reality, as I have seen death taint the memories of so many dear friends every day, but particularly this time of year. Best I can figure it, the lights and Christmas are a reminder of some of my happiest memories, because growing up Christmas was the one time of year that our family was actually together. We didn’t have school or sports, my parents both took time off of work, and if we traveled, we all went together to see even more family. My family elaborately decorated everything—sometimes multiple trees, mantle, our bedrooms, the staircases, the exterior of the house, even set up a little Christmas village with a train—and for a few weeks out of the year, we lived in a snow globe enlivened by Christmas music, ensconced in togetherness, encapsulated by safe shelter. It wasn’t always perfect, but it was us.
Every year, my dad would yell about the state in which he found the Christmas lights, insisting that we did a terrible job taking down the tree the year before and this mess was all our god damn fault. (No, the irony of my family taking the Lord’s name in vain was never lost me, either). He also insisted we were not a twinkle-light household, and to stop asking him every year if we could have twinkle lights, because the answer was no, we could not have twinkle lights.
There was one rather scarring year that my mother declared we would have to delay decorating the tree because she was banning multi-colored lights and handmade ornaments in favor of a very Martha Stewart Christmas, a well-designed tree with a distinct color palette. We spent hours at Wal-Mart procuring all of the gold, silver, and white ornaments they had, went to at least five other stores looking for the perfect ribbon. (No, not that ribbon Cee, the kind with the wire in it so we can crimp it and make perfect bows like Martha!) There was a giant bow on the top of the tree, beaded garland, and ribbon streamers that ran the length of the tree to its bottom branches instead of the live-action Angel topper that they’d had since before I was born. I liked her; she held a plastic candle with a light bulb tip and sounded as though she was moaning in pain as her arm gears ground repeatedly.
Even in our worst years, and trust we had some bad ones, we still banded together for these weeks. And if anyone acted out of line, all someone had to say was, “It’s Christmas” and we would stop acting like assholes, even if it meant we resumed the bickering the second after we finished scraping the fake snow off of the windows.
My first Christmas away from home was the hardest. I was a Junior in college, and instead of traveling home for the holidays, I went to Kansas with my boyfriend to be with his family. During the 12-hour drive, we fought over the radio. He listened to Classic Rock and I’d scan the airwaves looking for Christmas tunes—Frosty the Snowman in Evansville, Little Drummer Boy in St. Louis, O Holy Night in Emporia—and I would cry and stare out of the window, as if I’d been taken hostage on this trip. Instead of my family’s Christmas Eve tradition of opening gifts, gorging on ham and scalloped potatoes, and playing poker until dawn, I sat in a Comfort Inn trying to watch A Christmas Story with the sound off, mouthing the words from memory as he slept. On Christmas Day, we sat on harvest gold folding chairs on shag carpet and politely drank soda that expired during the Clinton Administration, but we were too embarrassed to tell his grandfather it was flat. The only gifts that were exchanged were for the children, and the only time I smiled that day was when an English-speaking toddler opened a Fisher Price toy that only spoke Spanish, the gift giver too senile to notice. “La Vaca dice MOO!” rang out in the cramped living room, followed by stifled laughter growing more raucous each time the computerized voice repeated it.
I spent one Christmas alone in my early 20s. I woke up early and checked my phone. No messages. I put on my slippers, brushed my teeth, and before I could crawl back into bed, I laid on my back underneath my Christmas tree, watching the multi-colored twinkle lights dance across the ornaments. I counted ornaments, my eyes blurred by the lights and the tears that were streaming down my face and filling up my ear canals. I listened to “The Spirit of Christmas” by Ray Charles on repeat, watched Christmas movies, drank half a bottle of bourbon, and kept reminding myself that being alone on Christmas was the same as being alone on any other god damn day, and that I needed to pull myself together if I was going to talk to anyone on the phone that day, be it family or a Chinese restaurant. I never got it together that day, though. I just wallowed and felt sorry for myself, just me and a Christmas tree and a bunch of bickering families in the Christmas movies not realizing how good they had it because at least they had someone to fight with that day.
I don’t live near my family, so I miss them most of the time, but the holidays are the worst, and decorating for Christmas is the one thing that makes it all feel less lonely. When I signed my lease this June, the one thing I was most excited about was that the 11-foot ceilings would allow for a bigger Christmas tree. I look at dozens on Amazon before deciding, but channeled my screaming father and bought a pre-lit one with white lights that will never twinkle. It arrived the first week of November and I was tempted to put it up then, but tucked it away in the closet, trying my damndest to wait until the day after Thanksgiving as my parents were coming to town and they would know I broke the rules and put it up early.
The night before Thanksgiving, we finished meal prep and baked the pies. Feeling restless and nostalgic for the holidays, I pulled the tree out of the closet and insist they help me put it up.
“It’s not the day after Thanksgiving,” my dad told me as he fluffed out the bottom branches. “It’s Christmas, remember, you have to be nice to me” I told him. He shook as head and smiled with resignation, as we put up the tree early for the first time.