There is an angel in my home.
It’s important to know that now, but I’ll tell you more about her later.
When I was young and the world was large, the year was highlighted by two recurring events, my birthday, and Christmas. They both continue throughout life, but my enjoyment of them no longer includes the raw, unabashed enthusiasm of boyhood.
Christmas especially rings out in my memory. Sometimes memory is a fickle friend, and plays sneaky games of hide and seek with us, but the memories of Christmas, these are clear crisp memories, easy to unwrap and share.
The holidays began early and stayed late in our family. Thanksgiving always marked the time to decorate for Christmas, and even this year, while visiting home in late November, Dad and I hung the wreaths in all of the windows of the old farm house, Mom made sure the single white candle flickered from inside. The wreaths hung and the table cleared of turkey, we would go and find a tree.
My favorite years Dad led the tribe into the snowy woods, bow saw in hand, he strode through the snow while we waded after him. One year, a particularly deep snow year, my brother John and I chose a Christmas tree fit for Times Square. As our home had vaulted ceilings and Dad had no reason to object, we felled the tree. And I mean WE felled it. John and I both took some licks on the saw, and when that beautiful, branched and green evergreen was laying on the snow, John and I allowed our work was done. Dad, we knew, would get the tree out.
The funny thing about gravity, it’s pretty easy to ignore when you’re walking slightly downhill. The brutal thing about gravity, it let’s you know when you’re going against it. As we lit out back to the truck, choosing to cut a straight line rather than backtrack on our circuitous route in, Dad must have been feeling less and less like Paul Bunyan and more and more like the ox.
As we neared the road and the grade got even steeper Dad stopped to rest. Turning around he saw me struggling behind in the deep snow, and John, fresh as a fiddle sitting astride the tree! The look of incredulity on his face was matched only by the pleased look of accomplishment on John’s (he indignantly walked himself to the truck after Dad invited him off of the tree).
When we raised that tree, indeed, when we raised any tree, the house seemed to wrap around it, and as the lights were strung and the ornament’s hung, the Christmas spirit seemed to bloom in every room, but especially around the tree. The tree always seemed to be a beautiful centerpiece at a table set for friends and loved ones.
Dad would get the boxes out and disappear, off to do whatever it is parents do when they can find a moment to themselves in the chaos of the Holidays. Then Mom (who everybody knows never gets a moment to herself) would breeze from the kitchen, some rich and sumptuous food in hand and she would pass the plate and oversee the decoration of the tree.
I love decorating the tree. I like white lights and colored, but not the blinking ones. The ornaments that had been so carefully packed the year before began to emerge like old friends. There were some that ended up on a memory wreath, a special wreath that Mom would add an ornament to each year to mark an event of some significance. The tree was much the same, there were the old ornaments, the old friends that were cloaked in age and yellowed with time and sanctified because of it. All of the ornaments in our house were survivors. They survived Christmas morning after Christmas morning in a house with an expanding number of little boys, and as they grew the arsenal of flying objects grew them, so yeah, if an ornament kept surviving our tree, it was a special friend of fate.
Atop the tree, well, we’ll get back to that.
Usually by this time Gram was on the scene. She always joined us for Christmas, no matter where we were in the country, she spent Christmas with us. I loved that. It felt that she was the harbinger of Christmas, that her arrival signalled it was for real, Santa was coming!
One year, this was in New Orleans, I was probably 7 years old. Anyway, the day came that Gram was going to arrive! She was coming in at 11, Dad was going to pick her up and bring her home. I knew there was no way I should go to school and miss out on four whole hours of her three week visit, and begged to stay home. Permission Granted!
I waited on the front lawn (it was New Orleans after all) and played and played. The plane landed at 11, she needed to get her bags and then make it across town, but I waited from 11 on, sure that I didn’t want to miss my chance to wave as she rolled up. When she came, my heart about burst with the unfiltered joy of youth, the joy felt when you’re greatest and most powerful ally in the whole world shows up and is smiling to see you. Few may know that feeling, and I’m sorry to say to those that life is richer for it, though it is many and many a year since I felt any emotion as pure as that love, and that sometimes comes with a certain kind of longing.
With the arrival of Gram, Christmas had really begun.
The house always smelled good, wholesome and well tended, at Christmas, it smelled decadent and sweet. Mom really pulled out all the stops, I think in many ways Christmas provided her with a platform to turn her tremendous love for her family into a physical manifestation of presents and lights and foods and most of all love.
She hung huge stockings, custom made, for each of us before filling them to brimming on Christmas Eve. The kitchen never turned off, there were slow roasted turkeys and honied hams, sweet breads and fruit pies, Christmas oranges from Florida and shelled nuts (with a million crackers to choose from), drink and cheer and all were served and served and served until no one could claim hunger.
Mom would set out a calendar, one with 24 spots for a little doormouse doll to countdown to Christmas. With an increasing fever pitch we watched the mouse draw closer and closer to the day that we waited for. Christmas Eve, the night before (Is there ever a night so long for the children and so short for the parents?), we would set out cookies and milk, sometimes Dad would advise that Santa might prefer brownies this year, and we would follow his advice. Carrots were set out for the reindeer, and in the morning they would be bitten off at the top, sure sign that the reindeer were satisfied.
I would wake up first (like I said, these memories go WAY back), and some years I would wake my brothers and we would sneak down to the tree, the lights off in the house, only the candles in the window and the Christmas lights glowing on the packages and boxes and skis or sleds or treasures and we would know, “He CAME!” chorused through the still morning air, and we knew.
We were allowed one present Christmas Eve, then the stocking in the morning before Mom and Dad and Gram were on the scene. One year, Uncle Bob and Miss Bicky gave me a Rudolph Doll with a battery operated, tinny speaker that would blat an instrumental version of Jingle Bells when squeezed. I got that Christmas Eve and did not stop. Dah Dah Duh, Dah Dah DaaaH, Dah Dah Dah dada and on and on never ending till the batteries mercifully died and Dad solemnly told me that they didn’t make replacement batteries for that sort of toy.
The stockings were cleverly packed. They were, after all, the only thing stopping us from storming upstairs to wake Mom and Dad. There was always some food to enjoy immediately. There was always something that was going to take some time (like a lego set) or something to share. There was something to carry a wildly excited kid a few moments so that Mom and Dad could catch a nap after the tremendous push the night before. I think we saw the stockings as a barometer for the tree, and somehow, they’ve always gotten better.
Over all this, watched the tree, bright and brilliant, glittering with tinsel and memories, it scented the room with the unmistakable aroma of pine and from the atop the tree, since I can remember, stood the angel. She was dressed in white with a bright red ribbon scarf. In her hands she held a single white light. Every year she saw us gather and share and laugh and cry and do all the things that families do when they are well taken care of and good to each other. For as long as I can remember she has been a part of the family, I’m not sure where she came from, or when, but every Christmas she sits atop the tree, a beautiful guardian of the Christmas light.
And now, 30 years separated from the Rudolph Doll, the angel sits atop my tree, a gift from my mother, to my wife and I when we raised the first tree in the home we built. It was the first ornament we owned together, and the start of our own Christmas tradition. The light she once held is gone, and I will remedy that before she goes up again, but serene and beautiful she ties me in a glance to all the Christmases that have come before.
Far from the homefires of New England tonight, wrapped warm near the fire and looking at the angel, I realize for the first time that the angel on the tree looks just like my mother. The holder of the light, and the bringer of the Christmas spirit, the steadfast symbol of peace and love, and the pure light of Christmas. All this time, I saw the symbols of love and felt blessed, and now, seeing the angel anew, I am blessed to see the source of love.
That is the best gift of all.
MERRY CHRISTMAS MOM, AND TO ALL THE MOTHERS WHO SHEPHERD BOYS