When I was a little girl, bright eyed and possibly more hyper-active as well as touch more naive than I am now, Christmas Eve and Christmas day was always spent at my grandmothers.
My grandmother lived in a farmhouse that was at least more than a century old. Two stories tall, it was a proper square of a house. It had a pitch roof and it did not have plastic siding anywhere on it. It was covered in wooden shingles painted bright white. It weathered Nova Scotia’s winters as stoically as it waited through the yellow warmth of its summer. Though for whatever reason my childhood memories think the old home stole all that summer warmth and kept it during the bleak white of December and onward– I remember the inside lit golden–and my grandfather’s habit of keeping the furnace and wood fire burning so hot it could melt a face during the day helped, too.
The house was built so that the focus of the main floor wasn’t actually the living room or the 10 windowed front sun porch that let in all of that fantastic light in the summer (and alternatively, was so poorly insulated let in all that cold air during the winter). It was the kitchen itself. The front door brought you into the porch, the place where your boots, shoes and coats could set while you visited. Immediately to the left of that door was another and that lead into the kitchen. While it is very true that all year ’round the kitchen was the place where everyone would gather and greet, play cards and eat food, laugh and gather ’round for one of my grandmother’s amazing meals–the sun porch and its drafty windows was where the tree and the majority of my grandmother’s Christmas decorations would go up.
I can sit here and conjure the scent of the porch easily. It was a strange mix at the holiday season of pine tree, mildew (because in the summer and spring thaw the roof would leak a little bit, making brown splotches on the white tiles as they dried). In the winter with the cold and windows shut, you could smell the old dampness a little better. A heavy wooden door with a pane of glass chest-level to an adult separated it from the living room. During winter it was kept shut tight and often a little sewn stuffed draft catcher lazed about on the floor to try and keep some of the chill from wandering into the rest of the house downstairs. A few days before Christmas however, my grandfather would open the door wide up–shiver and say, Brrrr, s’cold in here, don a shirt, a vest, a sweater and trudge on out to crank the little electric heater. A long faded yellow register that whenever it was turned on added more to the scents of pine, the ethereal crispness of winter cold– it was the smell of long unused heater. The best way to describe it is warmed up metal and too-hot baking dust. It faded an hour or two after the porch finally warmed up. I was always cautioned as well as everyone else not to touch or have anything touch the heater however, lest it melt.
The tree was always real. Probably not the most environmentally conscious thing ever but we lived in a place where everywhere you looked were trees. One pine a year when hundreds of saplings grew didn’t seem as horrible then. We had to empty the gutters in the fall because of that tree, but it was worth it. One year we installed a new one with a gutter installation Dallas company, which helped that problem afterwards.
Every year my grandfather (usually mildly tipsy to latter years, bunk drunk on watered down vodka–always hysterical when it came to his latter choices) would arm himself with a sharp axe. Miraculously he didn’t remove something important from himself with (like, you know. His head. Or an arm or a leg) and head out back to the line of tightly growing trees in our backyard.
When I was younger, usually my grandfather was relatively well at hiding how three-sheets-to-the-wind he was and still able to make some surprisingly good tree choices. He’d spend hours out in the cold bundled up as much as possible to pick the perfect tree. He always thought his choices were fantastic–and honestly I never understood why my grandmother would always roll her eyes and sigh Oh Cecil, whenever he brought the tree back. Because they were magnificent things to me, these Grandfather-picked trees. They were fat and huge with sprawling pine branches thick with the deepest green. The moment he dragged that tree inside god, Cecil! You are getting needles everywhe–it won’t fit through the do–Yes it will–no it won’t!–it will gawd damn it, jeeeezus christ, git outta my way–I just swept in the kitchen floor–Mooove I said!–and it hit the warm air, it made the entire house smell like it: pungent and knife-like and everything about the smell of a pine tree just hollars Christmas! and Winter! and Snow!
I always thought it was somewhat special, that smell of pine tree. It meant warm and clean and safe and sometimes, when I was very little and always sick with some sort of cold or yuck settled deep in my lungs–made me breathe easier. This perfect tree was always placed in the spot of honor to the far right corner. They would always loom tremendously tall to me. I suspect it was made even more so especially because I was not very tall at all when I was little. My grandmother would decorate it with things my mother and her sister made when they were girls, with things she made for the tree when she was younger and with things from her family and my grandfather’s family when they were little. Eventually it was even decorated with the horrific, often squished and semi-crumpled red and green construction paper chains, popcorn garland and other sloppily glittered monstrosities I would make in school.
She’d spend hours winding fat garlands of gold and silver tinsel over old fashioned mini-lights of green, red, yellow, and blue (with murmured concerns of fire hazards and never leaving them on all night until Christmas eve proper. For Santa. Of course). She watered it daily with a mix of plain old well water from the tap and aspirin to keep it healthy looking and shedding less pine needle if possible. Even in the later years when my grandfather brought home increasingly horrible looking trees…Scraggly things with great holes of missing branches and little to no pine needles left on them, she could always use her magic to transform it. Even the years she could no longer reach well enough to decorate it properly, her magic simply transferred to my mother, my aunt and myself as we helped.
I would spend hours lying under that tree the night before Christmas. My mum, my Aunt and her current boyfriend(s), my father, my grandfather would often gather in the kitchen to have tea, hot chocolate and coffee. The smell of that and the cookies my Nan had been baking would fill the air, mixing with the pine and the porch. The lights in the porch would be off, but every window in it–all ten of them–would have the orange yellow of a plug in candle glowing brightly. The tree would twinkle its semi-rainbow of color down to me through its branches, hitting the garland and sparkled ornaments, becoming something otherworldly. It bewitched me into imagining for hours. Grand stories of fantastical beings living in world-sized trees bedecked in gold and silver. Or I would let my eyes, as I said when I was little ‘go soft’ (unfocused) until the tree above me became a kaleidoscope of bright dots, like the dust and glitter from a fairies wing. I listened to my mother and my aunt giggle in the background like sisters might when they are young, my father grump and snarl reluctantly about Christmas and how much he hated it–as he ate my Nan’s cookies, drank her coffee, made loud jokes and eventually ended up laughing too with my grandmother joining in. Alternatively my grandmother would sigh dramatically at her husband and children too. I heard my grandfather humming happily Silver Bells, because inside he was just a big little boy who adored Christmas more than he would ever let on…And I would touch each ornament I could reach as if they were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It didn’t matter that I saw them every year. That they hung on the tree once a month every holiday season without fail for the decades I spent Christmas there–on Christmas eve they were new again. They were enchanting little creatures that sucked in all the different lights and sent them all out to bounce across every reflective surface on the tree, much like giggling children scatter on a school yard.
All around the tree a small river of presents gleaming heavily with stick-on giant bows and ribbons my grandmother curled with her secret-scissor technique fired my imagination. I wondered what gifts lay within, what secrets they held, what delight I would find in the morning. Pointedly when I was younger, none of the gifts were signed by Santa. Those were added later when little blond headed terrors were sleeping in bed.
Christmas day dawned bright and exciting. Everyone would gather in the porch, finding themselves a seat and blearily creak their eyes open after a hurried breakfast (because I was up at six am with wake up wake up wake up lets go Santa’s been here the gifts are ready let’s go let’s go come on can I open them now is it time can I now now hey now gifts? Christmas ! CHRISTMAS YAY!) for whatever reason, glue themselves to their coffee cups and begin discussing who got to go first. When I was younger they always wanted me to open mine first.
When I was small I mistakenly thought that Christmas was all about Christmas day. About the gifts. About waiting all year for that majestic morning I could tear into green and red, blue and white shiny paper to reveal whatever material thing I had been given that year.
I was so young and so foolish to make it all about the gifts.
It was always about the magic of family, of my grandmother’s tree. Of my grandfather’s drunken tree-picking and Nan’s cookies. Of my mother and my aunt giggling their fool heads off like little girls again while my father made wildly inappropriate jokes my grandmother laughed at. It was about me lying under the tree while listening to my grandfather hum Silver bells and smelling peppermint , pine and the coffee my parents drank. It was about love, family, childhood and dreaming. But it was never about the gifts.
Now I am thirty two and I have grown up enough to understand that these Christmases, these family moments are gone forever. These memories are the things while I, my grandmother, my Aunt and my mother also must cherish dearly because they cannot happen ever again. My grandfather has passed, my grandmother in a wheelchair and barely able to move on her own in a home. My mother and my father are far away in Calgary, celebrating a worrisome Christmas due to their health and financially, my father-in-law and mother-in-law, my husband’s sister and her boyfriend and I and Shawn will be having a sparse Christmas also–so these flickers of the past, these slide-shows I hold in my mind are all that remains of those christmases.
This is the first year however I have ever had my own place to have my own Christmas in and while I don’t have a lot of people (anyone yet) coming to my home to celebrate this holiday with me, I am determined to make more memories. More slide-shows to look back on.
I have put up my tree and hope my grandmother would approve. I am thirty-two years old, and every few days I still get down on the floor and scoot till my head is under the tree. I laid on my back and looked up into the branches. My tree isn’t a real tree, but, the garland is silver and gold and red. The ornaments have all been given to me by my grandmother-in-law (who insists I call her Grandma) who either handmade all of them, or they have all been given to her–and I often touch the ones within reach fondly. They all carry a memory for her, and hopefully, will carry Christmas memories for me, too. I hear distantly the sounds from my childhood holidays and now I hear the things from my new family. The jingle of bells on my cats, Shawn playing games or laughing, my birds tweeting and singing. Someday it will be my husband’s family and hopefully you laughing and drinking coffee in my kitchen too. I remember my father-in-laws comments, my mother-in-laws good nature, my husband Shawn’s loud laughter and good-natured jabs at family. I remember the taste of homemade eggnog I made for them last year and hope to make for them this year.
I will never have the Christmas with my family I used to when I was a child. This realization and understanding I think, is also just part of the inevitable: growing up and growing old. It is sad and yet something which I think needs to happen–so that we can make new memories. So that we can make new holiday snap-shots in our hearts.
I’ve learned now not to take Christmas for granted–not to take any holiday with my family for granted. Even if I don’t feel very much in the holiday spirit, if I am tired, if I’ve been arguing or had an argument with someone–I don’t let that stand in my way, because I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to make these memories again. I don’t let the consumerism or the advertisements; the grumpy faces in stores, the rude ladies elbowing me out of the way for that last chance sale ruin this for me. Because I haven’t forgotten something very important that they have: it was never about the presents of the money. It was, and always will be, about family.
Now I have the chance at making a new set of memories each year until I too, am too old to lift my arms to reach the tree.