|By kelp1966 from flickr|
The Christmas tree stood at the foot of the stairs 365 days a year for the majority of the 10 years I lived with my mother. It was a hand me down artificial tree, probably given to us by someone at the Methodist church we attended for a few years, and was put up in the dining room the first Christmas we lived in the apartment. My brother was still living at my mother's primarily at the time and we decorated the tree with the familiar handmade and antique ornaments. Just like when we had a gigantic, real tree at the old house, the left side of the tree had my brother's ornaments and the right side of the tree had mine. Likewise, my brother's gifts were piled under the left and my gifts got piled on the right on Christmas morning. The middle was reserved for the gifts my brother and I gave to my mother. I thought these strict designations were normal until I visited friends' homes during the holidays and got weird looks when I asked them which side of the tree was theirs.
Somehow, the tree got moved to the landing at the foot of the stairs shortly after that first Christmas when I realized that it was never going to be put away. I got antsy as a preteen and teenager and took to rearranging the furniture on a pretty regular basis, so I'm assuming I moved it there during one of these sweeps in one of my desperate attempts to change my environment. The tree was pretty sad; some of the connecting parts didn't connect so well, leaving wide gaps, and we had no working string of lights to spruce it up with. The years of dust and cobwebs that settled on the fake boughs and numerous ornaments didn't do much to add to its festiveness. Random boxes and gifts we received from my mother's coworkers that we had no use for or interest in remained under the tree for years, making it appear that we always had gifts waiting for us, when in reality, it was just an extension of the clutter surrounding the tree from all sides. The only sign of Christmas cheer came from the thin string of colored lights that hung near the gutter on the front of house, only there because our neighbors that shared the other half of the building decided it would look too weird if they only had lights on their side.
My mother has never been good at time management and usually spent Christmas Eve staying up all night, wrapping gifts. I would yell from the top of the stairs if it was time yet and I would receive nos for hours as she slaved away on the couch, folding and refolding to make the edges crisp and straight and the wrapping perfect. When I was finally allowed to descend the stairs, I sat on the bottom stair to open my gifts, with my mom usually wedged on the landing beside the tree. I respected her hard work and instinctively, from years of experience and being scolded not to rip the wrapping paper, slid my nail under the tape before bending back the paper, preserving as much of the paper as I could so that it could be saved and reused the following year. My stocking would be filled with dollar store finds and off brand candy. My mother usually gave me a few of the gifts I requested, staying strictly within her budget by comparison shopping at every store imaginable, and making sure that my brother received comparable gifts, down to the cent. She would total up the purchases with a pencil on the back of used envelopes or scraps of paper that she shoved in her purse along with the ream of other papers and scraps that became soft and frayed from refolding and became a dingy grey from smeared pencil lead.
Christmas as a child was always calculated and stressful; everything being last minute, equal, and deliberate. There was an order to the gifts opened and very little ground for childlike wonder to be inspired or expressed. The same fake smile was plastered on my mother's face when she opened her received gifts; delicate examination and stock responses in sing songy inflection. These contrived holiday routines have unsurprisingly taken their toll when I approach Christmas as an adult. My holiday spirit is dampened by the thought of dusty Christmas trees and happiness springing from a perfectly unwrapped gift rather than from the gift itself.
I combat it as best as I can by trying to remember helping my grandmother bake cookies and set up her Christmas village instead. My grandma trusted me to decorate the cookies the way I wanted, imperfections and all, and to place the ceramic houses in any arrangement that struck my fancy underneath her short Christmas tree. I put the small, round mirror that doubled as the ice skating rink and the skating figurines where ever I damn well pleased and spread the cotton wads of snow where ever my child's eye deemed it so. The tree ornaments and gifts were jumbled up and shared, creating the proper mosaic of a family instead of the sterile lines that created a permeable guise of a woman who was grasping at an opportunity, any opportunity, to feel a sense of empowering control.