It wasn’t always like this, the rush and commotion and panic and dread of something so meaningless. No, it was simpler, because it was a simpler time. A scary a-bomb time, but simpler. The season was shorter, and it was less important, because it is less important.
A man could make a hundred dollars a week and put his hands in his pockets and jingle his car keys and coins and feel himself quite a success. A one-hundred dollar a week man would still have a boss, but he could maintain some semblance of dignity. A well-paid man.
At a hundred dollars a week, a man could own a car and a house, and have a family and a black-and-white TV set that worked more often than not. On the nights the TV worked, which was most nights, the man could listen to Walter Cronkite and see pictures of John Glenn blasting off into space, hear stuff that made him worry about the Russians. The man took a shaky comfort, and a cumbersome pride in being an American. Something I never quite understood, though I was sure I was supposed to understand it.
About a week before Christmas, each year, I’d accompany the man, and we’d walk deep into the woods. Everything that was the previous summer was dried and dead, and our feet would crunch the hoarfrost on the leaves and twigs, and we’d break footsteps in the white rime of the frozen dirt. A week before the festive day, not a month or two months; just a week.
He’s take out his oiled and sharp knife and carefully cut us a big armful of scotch-pine boughs, while reminding me of the importance of caring for my tools. Tools were precious, much more than an implement to break free a bolt and nut or cut a branch.
Few greater sins confronted me as a boy than a socket or ratchet or a knife left out in the rain to rust. Tools were generational and inherited, not simply purchased. A lineage was completed when a hand grasped the grimy carbon steel. I touched the same steel as my father’s father, and in a way, I felt the callouses of that hand in my hand. When he did buy a wrench, or a knife, it came with an expectation it would last at least three lifetimes.
He owned two sets of outdoor lights, with maybe ten bulbs in each. A similar set was in the charge of his wife, and she dutifully attended to the tree inside. We’d weave his lights into the carefully nailed-up pine that framed the front door. Sometimes his wife would decorate the pine with bows and shiny balls. The front door a kind of no-man’s-land where the responsibilities of indoor and outdoor decoration commingled.
The lights were the big and ancient, even by 1963 standards. Fire-code breaking lights of red and blue and green, with bulbs that got hot enough to burn skin and peel paint. He would point out the Underwriters Laboratory tag, with a strange pride, implying and assuring me they were safe. But he’d turn them on at 5 p.m. and off an hour or two later, fearing to burn them any longer would set the fresh pine on fire.
I spent most of my Christmases as a young boy waiting for the house to burn down from those sketchy lights inside and out. I came to realize it must be an important holiday to put so much at risk for his lights.
When he died forty years ago, I knew him as a young man, but today he would be nearly one hundred. I feel myself a time traveler of sorts stranded between two worlds, his and mine. The path between them is so muddied and blurred I wonder at times if either ever existed or exists.
I suppose it is good in a way he died when he did, before we came to challenge and hate each other. Such is the tribal ritual and passage of boys to men, and the reality the young men force the old men to admit and accept; the best days for the old men have passed on by. I feel the anger of that confrontation now, in every sore muscle and once broken bone. It’s good. I suppose he died before we could have ever spoken to each other in rage and torrents of testosterone. When all I took from him was the importance of caring for the generational tools, without question or rage or angst or hate.
I face west and watch a cold, early afternoon sunset and ponder and crave the simplicity of his Christmas. There seemed to be a little more baby Jesus and mangers and wise men and a lot less retail involved back then. None of it, then or now, made a damn bit of sense to me, aside from the agency created between me being good for a few weeks, and some fat man in a red suit.
And the whole thing start to finish lasted maybe two weeks, and that was a lot. Then we’d take down the deadly two strands of lights and burn the pine boughs in a barrel and move on into the next year.
I come to the realization that the rituals I perform today are meaningless, but I do them anyway, a tribute to a man so long dead. I still wrap my front door in pine, and hang lights because he did, but my pine is purchased from the store, no more the walks in the long and dark woods and my lights less a fire-hazard.
I miss him on this night, but I realize now as then, I didn’t understand much of anything of his Christmas or this Christmas at all…