I guess most families have them: Christmas/holiday traditions that seem to transcend time and space.
My family’s holiday happenings were a blend of my father’s and mother’s history and traditions and went on, more or less the same, for over 35 years.
The tree did not go up and get decorated until Christmas Eve. When I was little, it magically appeared over night. I thought Santa brought the tree along with my present! I was amazed that the ornaments were the same every year – he remembered what went with our house! Of course, when I was old enough to help decorate the tree (in my parent’s opinion), that piece of magic disappeared. Just like the idea that some fat guy in a red suit found his way into our house without there being a fireplace and visited EVERYWHERE in one night. Christmas was never quite the same once I scoped out that the gifts my mother wrapped and put in the closet had the same paper as those Santa left under the tree. Too much of a coincidence for me! I remember being afraid to tell my parents I was no longer a believer – Christmas was never the same for them, either. Their daughter was a cynic (given my father’s disposition and sense of humo(u)r and what I now recognize as my mother’s depression, this should not have come as a surprise!)
But the tree traditions continued with some modifications. My parents bought the tree BEFORE Christmas Eve (try finding a tree on Christmas Eve in modern times!) though Dad, an engineer by training, could never find a straight tree – all our houses had hooks in the living room ceiling for wiring the tree straight! My job, once I was allowed to participate in the decorations, was to put on (and later take off) the tinsel. Folks these days may not know about tinsel: shiny lead (later aluminum) strips you hung on the tree to look like icicles (I guess). (Wikipedia defines tinsel as the garland strung around the tree: we called that garlands, lol) Each strand had to be very carefully placed on the branch. No throwing, no double-ups, no cheating. And, we had multiple boxes of the stuff: no speck of tinsel was allowed to remain in the box. I often dreamed of hiding at least one box each year to make the chore less arduous. Gradually as I got older and taller, I was allowed to hang the ornaments, some going back to grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s trees. We even had a set or two of horribly unsafe, I’m sure, bubble lights from probably the 1930s or 1940s! But tinsel remained my duty. Perhaps my father was trying to teach me patience, order, or some other zen-like virtue; or maybe he liked the look of tinsel but didn’t like the job of putting it on.
(thanks to the Jack Marshall Blog collection for this image)
From my mother’s side came the idea that you had to take down ALL Christmas decorations, including the tree, on New Year’s Eve to make sure you brought good luck into the new year. (No calendars to be hung or used until after Jan. 1 for the same reason: mom disliked the “new” 16 or 18 month calendars!) So, we spent new year’s eve day dismantling everything. My job was to remove the tinsel, strand by strand, with the same care I was supposed to put it on the tree. The strand was then carefully placed over a piece of cardboard, and when full of tinsel strands, placed back inside the original box. Now, the old, unhealthy lead-based tinsel was sturdier, and came off the tree much easier. The lighter aluminum-type would fly away, float, and generally object to being reused. But, it had no choice in our household: tinsel was never allowed to be disposed off as long as it remained a certain length – and I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the tree with scissors.
One year, probably around 1986, we arrived a few days before Christmas, and the tree was UP AND DECORATED! I was shocked (and the child in me just a little bit hurt and confused). What happened to the Christmas Eve tradition? My father noticed the look on my face. He simply said: “We left the tinsel for you to put on.”
(much fancier icicles than we used, but the boxes remind me of our more simple strands)