Christmas was quite the big deal at our house when I was a kid. I lived with my mother’s parents – Nonnie and Pampy (as I called them) and Nonnie’s two unmarried siblings, my great-aunt, “Hotten,” and my great-uncle, Henry. There was always a lap for me to sit on, always a cuddle and a kiss when I reached out for one. Nonnie, Hotten and I went to Temple Sinai synagogue in Oakland for services every Saturday morning and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashana and the very serious Yom Kippur. I attended Sunday school as well, but my mother, who was on her second marriage by the time I was 4, came to temple only on the High Holidays. Pampy was a lapsed Roman Catholic who visited Christian Science reading rooms every month or so. Uncle Henry seemed indifferent to religion of any stripe.
But we all loved Christmas.
Our tree didn’t come into the house until the day before Christmas Eve. It was always a fat, perfectly shaped little fir with thick needles that permeated the air with the bracing aroma of balsam. My grandfather’s Steinway took over the space at the bay window in the living room so the tree was placed in a corner of the dining room atop a shallow container of water. This was covered by a snowy velvet cloth dappled with tiny silver stars. Tree-trimming would begin after dinner and I was so excited I could barely sit through the meal. Uncle Henry and Pampy were in charge of threading the small colored light bulbs through the tree’s branches, and when they were lighted, the dining room glowed like a shattered rainbow. Next came the tinsel, which was placed, strand by strand, along the branches. That was Hotten’s job and she made sure each silvery strip had the appearance of a single icicle. I was her helper, lifting one piece at a time from the box and handing it to her on the tip of one index finger. Then it was time for the ornaments, none of them new, all of them left to us by my great-grandmother Mary Morris. There were fragile colored balls laced with an overlay of snowflake designs, twisted silver icicles, colored birds with a spray of artificial tail feathers and squat Santa figures. By the midpoint of the ornament hanging I was trying to swallow my yawns, so Nonnie took me upstairs to bed with the promise that a plate of cookies and a glass of milk would be left out for Santa Claus.
I nearly woke up at the sound of clumping reindeer hooves (my grandfather’s shoe banging on the floor, I would learn later) and a thrill shimmered through me at the sight of the half-finished glass of milk and the plate of cookies with a large bite taken out of the biggest one. I’d followed a red satin ribbon tied to my bed that led me into the hall and down the stairs to the dining room where a panoply of fancifully wrapped presents lay spread out under the tree. Most of them were for me and I could tell by the big, flat rectangular shapes that many of them were books, the things I treasured most. After all the gifts had been opened and exclaimed over, my grandfather went to the piano and played traditional Christmas carols. My mother would arrive mid-morning, and it always took two trips to her car to carry in the presents she brought for everyone in the family.
The details of one particular Christmas afternoon are etched in my memory. My father, whom I saw less and less of because the divorce had been my mother’s idea, appeared carrying two wrapped boxes, one large, one slightly smaller. Like most kids, I tore first into the bigger of the two packages. It contained a miniature set of tableware in a blue willow pattern identical to the dishes in our pantry. This small set consisted of six complete settings for a dinner party, including covered vegetable and soup tureens, a teapot, a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. It was better than any tea set I’d seen in any toy department and I couldn’t imagine that whatever was inside the smaller box could delight me as much. I was wrong. When I pulled off the colorful wrapping paper I found a surprise that made me take in a breath: at least two dozen tiny, individually wrapped objects tightly packed next to and on top of each other — all of them were toy banquet food for the dish set. There was a turkey on a platter with servings of cranberry sauce and dressing surrounding a well-browned bird. There were little soup bowls filled with something that looked like oyster stew. A tureen of peas was topped with a miniscule strip of bacon. Another platter held eight or nine biscuits and two serving dishes, one filled with mashed potatoes, the other with yams. There were two desserts: a cherry pie with a latticed crust and a fancifully frosted cake. The table was completed with amber-colored goblets and six sets of inchlong silverware.
I’d never seen anything like it, and even my grandparents and Hotten leaned in to see the marvel that had taken my breath away. It was a marvel and it is the only present I’ve ever received that I remember in full detail. I kept everything together in their original boxes but pieces were lost as I grew older and was sent to boarding school and then university. I managed to keep one of the tiny amber-colored goblets until a few years ago when it was broken during a move.
I love everything about the holidays, from Halloween straight through New Year’s Eve, even though we rarely leave the house on that night or, now that I think of it, any of the others. My daughter, Lisa, usually comes over, carrying small and wonderful presents, on Christmas. And on the evening of December 31st, the Mister and I always toast each other and the coming year with a glass of champagne and we say a small prayer for the months that lie ahead of us, our loved ones and our country. But every year, on the 25th of December, my mind goes back to that Christmas when I was still a single-digit age and my father came to see me with just about the best presents (aside from the glorious and unusual pieces of jewelry given to me by my beloved Mister) I’ve ever received. And then I can very nearly smell those beautifully ornamented little fir trees in my grandparents’ dining room.