Around 1955 my mother had a brainstorm about Christmas decorations. She loved them. And she wanted to make them. Lots of them! Lacking any other space, and seeing as how it wasn’t heated and wasn’t used in cold weather anyway, the living room became mama’s workshop. This was no small room, mind you, probably 12 by 20 feet front to back.
The living room was so big and so cold with the door kept shut, it was easy to store greenery of all kinds in there. Holly branches full of red berries piled in a corner. Long lengths of ivy stretched beside a wall. Pine boughs bunched up beside the sofa, and leaves — magnolia, mainly — overflowed a large box off to the side. And then there were the twigs of mistletoe ready to be thumbtacked overhead in each doorway.
In the middle was the work area, the floor protected with old newspaper. Jars contained buttons, gold beads, small ornaments, brass fasteners, and glitter. Rubber cement and glue, florist’s wire and cord — there was some of it somewhere. There were wreath forms, small, medium and large. I recall a small square of chicken wire — but only the Lord knows what it became. There were round bowls and square ones, clear glass, milk glass, goblets and pitchers. It’s a wonder we had any dishes to eat from by the time mama got through. Scissors and wire cutters, pliers, a hammer, large pins and little nails, plus a few thumbtacks, rounded out the work tables brought in from the back porch.
Brother Harold and I caught mama’s enthusiasm somewhat. We wanted to make decorations too! It’s not as easy as it looks on TV. Crumple newspaper into a ball. Circle the crumpled, rounded newspaper with glue and attach shiny ribbon. Hang on tree. Melt paraffin, beat with an egg beater until frothy, pour into an empty quart milk carton and let cool, peel paper off for a large, supposedly beautiful candle. String crepe paper. I soon got tired of my own, so I mostly helped mama with her creations.
Normal tree decorations were not necessarily put to normal use. Garlands of tinsel were transformed into “nests” for tiny presents, to anchor the mantel amid magnolia leaves and ivy. Red holly and pyracantha berries peeked between green leaves, glued and wired together surrounding several center candles. The front door wreath was created of fresh green pine boughs, plaid and plain ribbons, berries, beads and leaves intertwined to make the prettiest wreath I’d ever seen. Indoor wreaths were fashioned too, using ivy, more berries, leaves and ribbons.
Beside our seldom-used fireplace from ceiling to floor were white painted bookshelves. Most of the books came down, and Christmas went up. The dining room and kitchen didn’t miss out. Candles, bowls full of colored balls, holly leaves and berries, formed miniature Christmas scenes everywhere. Every doorway, every table top celebrated Christmas.
All our couches and chairs had side tables with reading lamps. Lamps and tabletops had new life, circled or topped with something Christmasy, plaid bows, red bows and green bows topped with garlands of tiny brass balls. Big and little leaves with red berries glued on became candleholders for green and red tapers.
The big upright piano on the back living room wall was usually topped with stacks of stuff, music books and magazines. All were dumped in a closet and the manger scene was installed complete with camels, shepherds, angels, and baby Jesus adored by Mary and Joseph, resting on a bed of soft cotton. A landscape of ivy vines and pyracantha berries completed the scene.
Still, the main attraction was the Christmas tree, taking up the end of the living room overlooking the street, in front of tall, wide windows. If there had been artificial trees back then, we wouldn’t have had one. The smell of Christmas had to include a fresh tree! Whatever hadn’t been used in other ways went on that tree.
The lights took a long time. If one bulb was out, the whole string was out, and of course you didn’t know which one. It was time for daddy to go to work. Take a bulb out of a good string, so you knew that bulb was good. Then, one by one, replace bulbs with that good one, until the culprit was found. I have no idea what happened if more than one bulb went bad — I guess you tossed out the whole string. Once the strings were all shining brightly, they had to be very particularly placed. Not too many red bulbs together, not too many blue. The most beautiful lights of all were the bubble lamps. When they warmed up, you could see and hear the colored fluid gently, softly circulate up and down the tall, slender cylinders of light.
First, up and down a little bit mama and daddy carefully wound the strings around the tree, to create a scalloped effect. All us critics had to approve the final light show before any other ornaments touched that tree. Then came the glass balls, large ones on the bottom, medium ones half-way up, and small ones on top. Balance! Then the tinsel, then the icicles, and the finishing touches, the angel hair and at the tip top, the Christmas angel! Or was it a star? No matter. That was the most gorgeous tree we ever had, and nobody else’s tree could possibly come close that year.
I don’t remember my presents. I don’t remember the food. I don’t even remember going to Mimi’s house (my grandmama) — but I remember that Christmas tree, and the living room, and mama making the decorations to fill up the house with Christmas.
Soon after the holidays, the dining room and kitchen returned to normal. The living room was a different story. Mama would go in there once in a while, look at everything and smile, stay a few minutes and come out again. Oh yes, the living room was a very different story. Because, you see, it took a long time to get that room and that tree just right, and mama wasn’t tired of it yet by New Year’s. Or by the middle of January, or by the middle of February. After all, the living room was cold, the greenery wasn’t fading very fast, the needles couldn’t fall very far with all the stuff holding them in place — so it was Easter before the tree came down.
Daddy mentioned the tree now and then. I recall his patience wearing a little thin. And his puzzlement at mama’s attitude. Eventually he gave up nagging about the tree, and eventually mama felt it was time, and the tree came down at Easter. I don’t have many clear memories of that year, the weather, the politics, the family situations, but I have a distinctly clear memory of Christmas, and mama, and it’s the best memory of my childhood.
(First written for a Junior High English Class, circa. 1956 or 1957)