Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Favorite Yuletide Memory

I’ve resolved that this year I’m going to adopt a less grinchly attitude toward the Yule season. I am also going to refer to it as the Yule henceforth because Yule has only four letters and Christmas has a lot more—and I'm a lazy sod. I know that’s totally ignoring that fact that at this time of year lots of people celebrate other holidays, but let’s face it, Christmas is what’s causing all the angst and heinous overspending and I’d like to see if I can just find a way to delete all traces of the angsty stuff and revel in the fun, noncommercial stuff. So Yule it is. It has a nice paganish ring to it as well.

B and I never put up a Yule tree, because it’s a hassle to put up and it's a depressing hassle to take down, but I do like them very much. We always had a tree when I was a kid, but my mom was very big on Advent and to her that meant that you spent most of December in sober and respectful anticipation of the birth of Christ. Translation: No galavanting off to parties or putting up the Yule tree the day after Thanksgiving like everyone else. We had to wait until the evening of December 23 to haul the box containing the dismembered Christmas* Queen out of the basement. The Queen was basically a green broomstick with holes punched in it at staggered intervals. The Queen's "branches” were lengths of twisted wire with fringy Space-Age Polymer™ needles sprouting from them. Each branch had a dab of colored paint on it that was meant to clue you in to where on the broomstick that branch was was supposed to be inserted—different colors of paints for the different branch lengths. After about two seasons the paint wore off, and we were reduced to eyeballing the branches and trying to decide what tier they belonged to. The tree never looked quite as regal once the paint wore off.

While putting together the Queen, we always, always, always listened to a recording of the Canadian Brass playing Christmas carols. Not carols that make you want to put your head in the oven (e.g. "Frosty the Snowman," "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas"), but classic carols like the "Here We Come a-Wassailing," "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella," and "Good King Wenceslas." If my mom was in a particularly lenient mood, we might even be allowed a few glasses of viscous eggnog. Once the Queen’s branches were inserted, my Dad would string on all the lights. This was not something he enjoyed because they were always hopelessly tangled. At some point, my sister—the family peacemaker—made it her job to prevent my Dad’s annual lights meltdown and preemptively detangle them.

Then came the really fun part: the actual trimming of the tree. We had a lot of ornaments, many of which came into being after an ornament-making binge one year when I was about 12 and my sister was about 8. Most of the ornaments we made looked something like this, but some of them had freakish udder-like appendages like this. My sister now has all the family ornaments and we still—decades later—argue over who was responsible for the comically lopsided and amateurish ornaments. I claim that she, being younger, was. She claims that I, being innately clumsier and less dexterous than she, was. The truth is now lost in the mists of time.

We put all the ornaments on—the handmade ones, the handed-down ones (like the tarnished Porky Pig ornament that belonged to my grandma), the clip-on birds that shed glitter all over the place, the plastic saxophones and trumpets that really played (well, they squeaked a bit if you blew into them), and the countless construction paper assemblages my littlest brother made over the years. Then we’d turn out all the lights and admire the Queen basking in her own muted but gloriously colorful glow.

That was my favorite way to look at and be with the tree—with the room lit only by the tree lights and preferably with no other family members about. Actually—I might as well admit it—my absolute favorite thing to do was steal some Yule cookies out of their well-known hiding place in the dining room closet and wedge myself behind the tree where there was a heat register. I’d sit there happily and cozily in the quasi darkness nibbling away on the purloined cookies—warm and toasty. Family members might walk by on their way to other parts of the house and usually didn’t know I was there—a novel experience when you’re part of a family of six living in a small house.

I don’t know why that’s such a vivid and happy memory for me exactly, but I know the warmness and snugness of it was a significant factor—our house was kept at the Jimmy Carter-ordained temperature of 65 degrees and my mom was always nudging it down a few degrees more just to be extra virtuous. I wore sweaters, but I was still always chilled to the bone.

The forbidden cookies, too, were part of it, of course. As I’ve mentioned before, real cookies (made with white sugar and white flour as opposed to wheat germ and blackstrap molasses) were something we rarely were allowed to have, and I still don’t know why my mom sanctioned a big Yuletide cookie-making extravaganza, but she did so we didn’t question it.

And mixed in with all that was the fact that school was out and presents were imminent. Probably most of all it was just the nutcrackery allure of the tree.

Last year I was so anti-Yule. I felt really stressed and angry by all the wanton consumption, even though I didn’t much participate in it. This year, I’m not feeling that way. Maybe all that anger burned itself out, and I’m in a kind of white dwarf phase. Whatever. Anyway, I can’t do anything about the commercialism except to continue to boycott it, which somehow seems easier this year. I’ll go to the parties I’m invited to and enjoy the convivial atmosphere; I’ll take evening walks with B to look at Yuletide lights; and I might even bake a few batches of Yule cookies, although that would entail going out to buy some cookie cutters and sprinkles, and I’m not sure I could or should do that. I’m really tempted, though.

*I'm making an exception to the Yule rule just this once, because it really was called the "Christmas Queen" not the "Yule Queen." Note: I don't know if "Christmas Queen" was the brand name or the model. It was from Sears and for all I know they still make it. And for all I know the Queen is still in my dad's basement, although it's likely she went into decline and got sold for $3 at a garage sale some number of years ago.


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