By: Catherine Olaso
I lug the last box of decorations from the shed, momentarily lost in the surge of Christmas ghosts that flurry through me. Each spirit – each memory of Christmas’ past has waited all year to come to life. As lid after dusty lid is opened, so too, are the channels of my heart.
My children gather around me, their impatient fingers diving into the glimmer and glitz that shapes much of their holiday magic. But they don’t see what I do beneath the layers of yellowed newspaper and bubble wrap. Many of the relics here hold no meaning for them … yet.
Ornaments by the dozens emerge from wads of tissue paper. My daughter pauses to ask about a worn and faded box at the very bottom of the pile. “Those are weird,” she says, peering at the golden spindle shaped ornaments left over from my childhood. The glass is thin and brittle – scratches leave missing flecks on its shiny finish.
Only half a dozen have survived my possession. Curious, tiny hands and playful cat paws have necessitated keeping them strategically placed to preserve what’s left of their legacy. “These are special”, I say. “We’ll only put a couple onto the tree, way up at the top.” I lift the delicate box to my nose, closing my eyes to breathe in the nostalgia.
Sunny California left my parents repining for snow – nearly every tree they brought home was flocked in fluffy white where it stood in all its pseudo-snow glory in a corner of our living room.
White lights gleamed through the simulated frosty branches, illuminating each golden spindle. There were silver spindles too – I think my sister inherited those. My mother completed the display by meticulously placing one strip of tinsel at a time throughout the whole of it – from base to tip. She let me help if I wanted, but I had little patience for the clingy, frustrating strands that stuck to my hair and clothes more than the tree.
The popcorn balls were different. I didn’t mind the sticky concoction coating my hands and fingers as I helped my mother shape the red and green tinted treats. After, I’d fuss with my two sisters over scraping the pan for excess syrup, the wooden spoon warm against my tongue. My brother never seemed annoyed, or I would have shared. He was the baby, and I adored him.
Date nut loaf, fudge and divinity were other Christmas confections my mother indulged us with. My father didn’t often care for sweets, but this was the one time of year he was beaten – chocolate orange sticks were one of his favorites. I still buy a box every now and then … just because.
Oranges were always in our stockings. For a while this baffled me. How could Santa grow oranges in the North Pole? And how did he know the things I marked in the Avon catalog with my sisters late at night? Was it a coincidence, simply because my mother worked for Avon … or did Santa really know that bubble gum lip gloss and hand lotion that smelled like grapes made me happy?
Santa must have known that these things made my sisters happy as well, because their stockings were filled with different variations of the same – all exactly as requested.
We’d sit on the floor, elbow to elbow under the twinkle of tree lights long before anyone else was up, me in the middle as the middle sister ought to be, each of us aglow with marvel at the surprises inside our stockings – our faces soft and our eyes wide with delight.
I treasured my special stocking. It was made of red felt and dotted with tiny appliqués – a present, an elf, a candy cane and Rudolph. A small green bell was sewn onto the end of the toe. My mother confessed she accidently donated it with a bunch of things when she cleaned out the garage after I left for college. I try not to hold that against her. I hope someone found it and loved it as much as I did.
My parents didn’t always quote or read the Nativity story from the Bible. That came many Christmases later – when religion found its way into our home. We sang carols, though. Every Christmas Eve until my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, we’d meet at my grandparent’s house – aunts, uncles, cousins, great-aunts – the house brimming.
I sidled up beside my mother as she sang Silent Night with my aunt Pauline and one of the great-aunts with white hair. In that sweet lullaby, my mother transformed. To my five-year-old eyes she was an angel. That was the first time I realized my mother was a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice.
My father wasn’t much of a singer. He liked the Polka. So when the carols were silenced, he’d put on an album and my grandparents would dance the Polka in the middle of the room. Other adults joined in while kids formed a circle around them. I laughed and clapped to the quick, lively music of the accordion and trumpets, enchanted by early glimpses of the German-Polish heritage my father was so proud of. Once, my grandfather grabbed me and spun me around the floor a few times. He was a thin, wiry man with kind brown eyes and hands that swallowed mine.
“Mom, this one’s mine,” my son says, thrusting a clay ornament he made last year at school toward me.
“Yep,” I say, watching his face beam. “I remember that.”
My daughter pulls on my sleeve, pointing out a paper angel belonging to her. “Look, Mommy. I love this one.”
I smile knowingly. My children are remembering now too … inviting Christmas spirits of their own to transpose them.
After all, isn’t that part of the magic of Christmas – gathering and storing ghosts to live forever in our hearts?