I grew up in an interesting household. Until I was 10 years old I lived alone with my mother, who was half Jewish (mother’s side) and half Italian Catholic (father’s side).
My father had moved to New York. My mother remarried when I was 10 and we moved from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. My mother’s parents were very important in all aspects of my growing up.
When the holidays arrived Christmas took over, as my grandfather’s feelings about this celebration were very strong. We never went to church or temple, we just celebrated the festive part of the holiday with lots of energy and abandonment.
We had to have a Christmas tree and it had to be a big, beautiful one. My grandfather closely examined the height and the branches to make sure they all balanced visually. We had a special large red felt cloth that covered its base and had “Merry Christmas” stitched on it. And the trimming of the tree had to follow his instructions for that particular year. His ideas changed every year, so we could never keep up. No matter, trimming the tree was always an exciting and fun experience for all of us. It mattered so much to my grandfather, and became such a traditional experience for the whole family.
My mother had a big box of tree lights and another box of ornaments. First we got out the lights, which were tested and new ones added as needed. Then they were twinned along the branches with everyone directing, pointing, and creating a lighting din. With the lights left on we all began to hang the ornaments. We all had our favorites.
After I was born, my mother had purchased 12 very thin, red, glass bells. These were my favorite and always took center stage for me. Slowly over the years, due to their thinness and delicacy, many broke. I still waited for each of them to be hung. There were many hand-painted, bright round balls we had to hang to the back of the branches so that they would not topple off. Hanging and admiring, oohing and ahhing, always took a lot of time.
Then my grandfather would open the new packets of silver foil icicles that he would happily drape over everything like icing on a cake. (One year, he tried spray snow and one year he bought plastic icicles but neither of these decorations was successful and we returned to the traditional favorite of silver foil.).
Once the tree was trimmed the presents could be brought out. They were placed around the tree on the blanket in any order—big and small, bright and patterned. Later, when no one was around, I would read the “to” and “from” cards, give each package a shake (I hope I was gentle) and try to figure out who was getting the most gifts. I always hoped it was me, of course. Since there were a few days before Christmas morning I had a lot of time to repeat this activity, especially as new gifts arrived over those last few days.
Besides the tree and the presents, the food was a central part of the celebration. My mother was a super cook and loved to spend her free time reading cookbooks and planning meals. Many friends and family members were part of the gathering and she would change the menu each year from a seven-bone roast or a pot roast to turkey or roasting chickens and all the trimmings.
My favorite year was when I was 11 and my mother decided that we should have a “medieval Christmas meal,” which to her meant a whole roast suckling pig. What was delivered to our house was more like a frozen pony that had been laid out on the dining room table. We could never fit it in to our oven or in to any pan we owned.
My mother found a bakery that would bake the pig and my stepfather found a hardware store with huge cooking pans. He also made a wooden tray to hold the cooked pig as we paraded in to the dining room singing the ancient song, “The Boar’s Head in Hand Bare I” while the pig wore red and green cherries in its eyes. It was really good, especially the crisp and crackling skin. That was a festive year.
Even after all the presents were opened and the paper was cleared away, we sat and talked and remembered past times together of being a family and having each other and liking how we chose to celebrate the holiday. My mother was dressed in what I called her “Mrs. Santa Claus” outfit of a long red, soft silky dress with a hood, which was pinned to her hair. She only wore it then but it was so festive and special and I loved that she did it for each of those years.
Today my box of ornaments lives with my youngest son and his family. As far as I know there is still one small red glass bell which hangs at the top of their tree along with the other pieces I used every year while my children were growing up. I am glad that they have a new home with my grandchildren.
After all, Christmas is mostly about the children and their wonder and surprise and having the chance to make their own new family memories. I am glad that some of my grandfather’s and my mother’s traditions will be a part of their holiday memories.