If it glitters, sparkles or shines, my mama loves it. Her soul-stirring delight in all things fancy makes Christmas a religious experience, even apart from Baby Jesus in the manger. That gal was made for Christmas.
The tree, of course, is the centerpiece of sparkly fanciness at Christmas, and I recall our trees as spectacular. Perhaps because we lived in a trailer where storage was tight or perhaps because money was even tighter, we didn’t have an artificial tree. No sirree. We had a real Douglas fir that smelled like, well, Christmas. Every year.
Mama had no patience for “theme” trees, no matter how trendy, where the tree was decked with plastic baubles in a consistent color scheme. Oh, no. Our tree had ALL the colors, every year. And come to think of it, I don’t recall ever seeing a plastic ornament on our tree. We had a near-sacred collection of glass ornaments, many of which had graced mama’s tree when she was a girl. Excitement ran high each year when the Hamm’s Beer box housing these treasures was brought in from the storage shed.
Incidentally, that Hamm’s Beer box became a treasure in its own right. It dates back to my parents’ first Christmas in Anchorage, Alaska. Although they met in Sheridan, Wyoming, they were married in Alaska because Daddy worked in the oil fields, and that’s where he was living at the time. Had my mom truly understood the life of an oilfield gypsy, she might have added “sturdy boxes” to her wedding registry. Countless boxes came and went as our family moved from place to place, but this Hamm’s Beer box met the gold standard of sturdiness. For 60 years, it protected our Christmas treasures, and I’m proud to say the box has been handed down to me. The tradition continues!
But I digress. This particular Christmas, Mama had bought a new tree topper. It was a beautiful glass finial type, similar to this one. I’m sure it came from K-Mart, but that’s not the point. It was beautiful and shiny and everything she wanted Christmas to be.
She was so excited, that as soon as she had secured the tree in the stand, she crowned it with that gorgeous topper and stood back to admire its beauty. The rest of the ornaments, the lights, the garland, the tinsel could wait till after supper, but oh my, wasn’t our tree going to be glorious.
In case you’re wondering, my dad was not present for this scene. In fact, his work took him out of town for long stretches, leaving Mama to carry most of the parenting load. There were four of us kids, born within a 5-year span: Steve, Andy, me and Elaine. Best I can recall, I was 5 or 6 at this time, and we lived in a tiny trailer. So, that’s the scene — four rambunctious little kids in a small space, running around a naked tree sporting a shiny new topper. What could go wrong?
To this day, none of us claims responsibility for knocking the tree over, but I suppose we were all guilty. The moments that followed are indelibly etched in my memory — the slow motion fall, the desperate attempts to catch a branch, the clattering crash of breaking glass. Followed by unbearable silence. And then, in one swift motion, Mama threw open the door, yanked the tree up by its stand and stuffed it right out the door with a thundering announcement:
“There will be no Christmas this year!”
We were heartbroken. Guilty. Ashamed. There were tears, including a few that rolled down Mama’s cheek. But mostly, I just remember the quiet.
Eventually, of course, tempers cooled, tears dried and the tree was invited to come back in. It was lovely, even without a topper, and most importantly, there were presents underneath it.
If this had been a normal scene for us, I’m sure I would never have remembered it. But it wasn’t. Normal was Mama kneeling to pray beside her bed every morning. Normal was family devotions at the breakfast table. Sure she had moments of exasperation with us, but her grace infused our home.
In the 50+ intervening years, I’ve come to understand my mama’s frustrations and tears a little better, having experienced my own share of Christmas debacles. Yes, she was stressed. And with good reason. Disappointment played a role, too. The burden of creating Christmas magic for children rests heavily on a mama’s shoulders, and she wanted that for us. The perfect Christmas she tried to create fell somewhat short of perfect.
But the well of her tears went deeper. Eventually I came to understand that Mama needed a little Christmas magic herself. The shattered topper wasn’t just a mess and a waste of money and a hassle. The deeper cost was her own joy in the moment, her wonder at the beauty she was creating. Inside every tired and stressed mama is a little girl looking up at a shiny tree, absorbed in the sparkling lights, reliving Christmas magic from her own childhood.
To all you exhausted mamas this Christmas, I see you. Please know that Christmas magic happens in spite of the mess, just like it did on that very first Christmas in Bethlehem. It’s going to be okay, truly. This season, I’m wishing you peace amidst the chaos, good humor to laugh at small disasters, and moments of wonder to delight your inner child.
And to my own sweet Mama, thanks for ALL the memories and for never cancelling Christmas! You have always been our Christmas magic.