By Wayne Allensworth
I had to be careful. The ornaments were wrapped, each one in tissue paper and some of them were very old. I had dropped a couple of them and they shattered. As brittle as dried leaves. Their skins had grown thin as they had grown old. Christmas ornaments collected by my mother over time. So many Santa Claus ornaments, old St. Nick in his jolliest attire, thick beard and twinkling eyes. Snowmen with black eyes. Many of them looked like the characters in 1930s cartoons. Those same round faces and big eyes. Angels that reminded me of radiant screen stars from the Golden Age. And shepherds and animals and the Baby Jesus, wrapped in thick blankets. Swaddling clothes.
We had put a tree upstairs the weekend after Thanksgiving. We wanted to have everything ready ahead of time, in hopes of everyone, children and grandchildren, coming at Christmas time. The upstairs tree would be momma’s tree, a place for some of the ornaments — she had hundreds — she loved and carefully placed on the trees in our house when I was a boy. My father always geared up for Christmas because he knew what was coming — Momma on a tear of decorating every nook and cranny of that little house, the tree, one chosen for its fullness and height. And she sat on her folding chair and meticulously situated hundreds of ornaments in echelons down the limbs of the tree. Placed so that the color and decorative style of the tree had depth and a sparkle that was reflected by those blue and red and green and white Christmas light bulbs, tear drops of light on the green of the tree. The glitter of those silvery “icicles” draped on the tree limbs.
I was back there, in that time and place, when I unwrapped the ornaments. Envisioning her trees and the care she took with them. I knew I couldn’t use all of the ornaments, so I selected the best usable ones and lamented those lost in the process. But what else to do? When my parents passed on, we did not want to let go of those ornaments. So we used them, each year a few more breaking, the past itself breaking up in fact if not in mind. Careful. Where to place that big Santa? Where would the smiling angels flutter their thin wings? Momma had written descriptions of some of the ornaments on the now yellowing tissue paper they were wrapped in, the paper itself a product of a bygone era. Just like all the boxes of snapshots I inherited. She would write the names of the faces in the pictures on the back, date it, and sometimes give a little description of the event, like an archeologist preserving precious artifacts. And they, the notes and the pictures, are precious, as precious as her Christmas ornaments.
Every year when I go through this, I’m struck by the care and attention to detail of the people who made these ornaments. Like the care taken by my father when he built the Christmas scenes he placed — under Momma’s direction, of course — in our front yard. One was a Christmas train, Santa the conductor. He built the train’s cars and the locomotive and Momma painted them. The train wheels were coffee cans. Daddy placed lights around the scene to illuminate their creation at night. In those days, families took drives to look at Christmas decorations in the evenings. We did, too. We went to the neighborhoods that everyone said had the best decorations, and we children craned our necks and took it all in. Every Santa and every sleigh and every Nativity scene.
At home, we anxiously awaited the broadcast of our favorite Christmas TV programs. The movies and animated shows like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I’m certain I’ve watched most every year since its first airing. Each one was an event, as there was no streaming, no tapes, no DVDs. And the anticipation made the viewing pleasure that much better. Our first TV that I remember was a huge oval screened monster housed in polished wood. The knob on that contraption was big and round and it clunked a little when you switched channels. Rabbit ear antennae, sometimes with tin foil wrapped around them. And with all the lights turned off except for the lights on the tree, it made for a magical experience. The lights glowed and the ornaments shined. And the Christmas music played on our record player so much that I memorized the carols and the songs.
Despite my mother’s careful preparations, it was all actually done without much thought given to it. It was just what was done at Christmas time. In our more cynical and sterile time, if we want to have even an inkling of that experience, we have to make conscious what was largely unconscious, and keep Christmas, not letting it go. So I carefully hung the Santas and the angels and the Wise Men and the Baby Jesus on the tree. And I stepped back and turned out the overhead light and took in the color and the shine and the feeling. Each Christmas was an ornament in our lives. A decoration. And it still can be.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.