Hauling Out the Holly
When I was growing up, Christmas decorations didn't appear in our home until a week or two before Dec. 25 - one week before if my mother had her way, two weeks before if I could wear her down about wanting to decorate a tree.
Our decorations, perhaps gaudy by today's standards, seemed pretty tasteful for the 1960s and '70s.
A single electric candle with an orange bulb was placed in each window at the front of the house. An artificial poinsettia wreath hung on the front door, an entrance flanked by three-foot plug-in candles resembling candy canes, standing like skinny peppermint sentinels on either side of the door.
Few novelty items were displayed, compared with how we deck our halls today.
Mom covered the kitchen table with a red tablecloth and set out Santa and Mrs. Claus salt and pepper shakers. Other knickknacks included a small ceramic Christmas tree and a couple of petite carolers that doubled as candles.
A nativity scene was always the focal point of the mantelpiece, surrounded by a few magnolia branches interspersed with bright red nandina berries. Red tapers rested on each end of the mantel, but like the caroler candles, they were never lit. Lighted candles were reserved for a power outage, otherwise, you'd have to buy new candles every year.
None of those decorations came down from our attic until it was time to decorate the tree. We always had a live tree, but my mom, bless her heart, was anxious about live trees staying up too long, drying out and catching on fire.
Those strands of big colored bulbs were evidently prone to shortages. A fleeting spark, she warned, might set a dry branch ablaze, send the house up in flames, and bring an end to all that was merry and bright for the Allen family that year.
As I grew older, I understood her concern and appreciated her vigilance, but by my teenage years I was ready to respectfully make use of, at least what I perceived to be, some rather superior argumentative skills that would surely convince her she was being overreactive, if not downright disrespectful of the season's meaning.
And besides, she was the one who had affirmed my quarrelsome gift: "You could argue with a stop sign and win," she'd sometimes tell me.
One year I pleaded my case for an earlier decorating season by suggesting that I add watering the tree to my list of household chores. Mom countered, rhetorically asking if I'd have to be reminded to do that as I had to be regarding other family duties.
With that argument going nowhere, my next line of defense was to address the issue of the temperature in the room where the tree typically stood - an unfurnished room with an air vent my father kept closed.
That, coupled with the fact Dad adjusted the thermostat to see how low our winter electric bills could go, created an environment in which one could safely hang and preserve meat.
If the room was cold enough for a hog-killing, surely a fresh-cut Fraser fir could hold on to its needles for a couple of weeks, even if I missed a day of watering.
"It can still dry out," Mom argued. "Air doesn't circulate in that room."
Seems I'd run into another holly hedge, so I decided to play my final hand, an admittedly desperate, manipulative ploy, suggesting that the longer we waited to decorate, the greater the risk our Christian neighbors might surmise that the Allens no longer believed in Jesus.
Mom shook her head and laughed, softened her seemingly impenetrable practicality, and agreed to a decorating compromise of 12 days before Christmas that particular year.
My parents, now both in their 80s, continue the tradition of stark and frugal decorating simplicity during the Christmas season, setting out decorations stored in the garage instead of the attic, but no sooner than a week before Christmas.
A small artificial tree has replaced the Fraser firs but the tabletop ceramic tree, red kitchen tablecloth, and holiday salt and pepper shakers still have their place.
Our family, on the other hand, begins decorating the weekend before Thanksgiving. Piece by piece, our collection of the gaudy and the grand find their way to the mantel, the dining room buffet or the kitchen table. The tree goes up right after Dec. 1, our oldest daughter's birthday.
Unlike my parents, we light candles, lots of candles, but some of my parents' ways have rubbed off on me. I'm vigilant about keeping an eye on those burning tapers, water our tree every day, and unplug the lights when we leave the house or head off to bed.
And like my parents, we seek to keep our manger scene in a prominent place and the focus of our seasonal -displays. The lighting of an Advent wreath, not part of my growing- up years, helps us maintain that focus on a weekly basis.
Those candle carolers have probably long since melted in my parents' attic or found their way to the trash after breaking or turning brown with age.
I saw some recently in a catalog, a package of three carolers for $14.95. The advertisement recommended buying two sets, "one to burn and one to cherish." What about one to keep and one to give?
Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad. Thanks for the memories and the magic, for artificial wreaths that welcomed me home, -peppermint candles that lit up the doorway, and red tablecloths that brightened our holiday meals, but thanks -especially for instilling a faith, I assure you, your neighbors have never doubted.
Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines, and a frequent PineStraw contributor.
More like this story