When my kid sister and I were young, our "real" tree wasn’t up until Christmas Eve. To hold us off, when we clamored starting on Dec. 1 for a tree decorated with lights, our mother gave us projects — an Advent calendar coated with silver glitter, its tiny windows opening to old-fashioned toys: tops, trains, Kewpie dolls, bears wearing red ribbon bows, jacks, toy workbenches, roller skates.
The humblest pre-Christmas ritual of all was the brown paper tree, fashioned from several Food Fair grocery bags that Mom glued together to make a seven-foot tree. With safety scissors, my sister and I carefully cut along the penciled outline of the tree. On scraps of brown paper, we drew and cut out round globes, coloring them in red and green with the fat crayons. We graduated to the 24- crayon Crayola box and, feeling adventurous, fashioned paper baubles in burnt Sienna, azure blue and red-orange for fancier ornaments. For gold, we deployed yellow. For silver, we used gray. After supper on weeknights, or on Advent Saturday afternoons, we lay on our stomachs in the small kitchen, bearing down hard on our crayons.
I drew the star, and we both filled it in with hard strokes so no brown paper showed through. Mom taped the giant paper tree to the wall in the kitchen, and each day she helped us glue a few paper ornaments onto the tree.
Christmas cards began to arrive in early December, from aunts and uncles, from Mom’s pals from her teaching days, from friends from Sparrows Point and Dundalk. We rubbed our fingers over the flocked designs. On a metal apparatus in the shape of a pine tree, Mom displayed the cards, and when the clips of the metal tree were full, she taped holiday cards to the woodwork leading from the dining room into the kitchen.
On Dec. 24th, out came the Christmas stockings, which hung on a red ribbon tacked to the wall because we had no fireplace. And our real Christmas tree would appear, bare, in the corner of the living room, perfuming the apartment with its fresh balsam scent. The lights and the glass ornaments never appeared until after my sister and I were fast asleep.
A few days after every Christmas, my mother would notice the dropped needles that appeared everywhere in the apartment. She let us keep our favorite gifts, the dolls and toys, under the tree until New Year’s Day. But the pajamas, the scarf and glove sets from our aunts, the bath towels with the circus motif, personalized with our names, and the games had to be stowed in our bureaus or the big closet. Soon, the real tree would be gone, lying on the curb for the garbage men to claim. The paper tree we’d worked so hard on was rolled up and discarded. All the sugar cookies and the chocolate chips had been eaten up, and what remained were a few rock-hard gingersnaps that only my father ate.
On Jan. 1, Mom pulled the fragile ornaments from the tree and lined them up on the dining room table. As she inspected each ornament and placed it into its niche in the storage box, the television droned on in the adjacent living room.
My memories of that time are vivid. I sat with her as she packed up Christmas. Her whole life, she fought hard to keep the blues at bay at Christmastime, for the holiday brought on sad memories of her straitened childhood. I didn’t understand why she was in such a hurry to “get back to normal,” as she put it. She was always glad to see New Year's Day come and go, to put Christmas on the shelf or back up in the attic, for another year.
Now, after Christmas, I feel my mother’s spirit in my own living room. Time to close up Christmas for another year.