I’ve always loved the Christmas season. The inside of my house proves it; every table, windowsill, wall, and shelf is overflowing with 50-years-worth of accumulated decorative Christmas crap. We pull Christmas cookies out of the oven with snowman potholders and display them on Christmas plates. We read by twinkle bulbs. We dry our freshly showered tushies on holly jolly towels. We own a seizure-inducing, blazing, blinking Christmas village. We have a small mountain of Christmas-themed stuffed animals. And we have two Christmas trees (one real and one artificial) to house every one of our 72 gajillion Hallmark ornaments.
‘Tis a festive sight.
If you take a gander at the outside of my house, however, you’d be convinced I was a virulent atheist. Not a wreath, not a jingle bell, not a ding dang thing can be found.
When Ellen and I were first married, my No Outdoor Decoration Policy flummoxed her.
“Why not put just a little something outside?” she asked. “Just strand of lights. Or a sign that says ‘Santa Stops Here.’ Maybe we could hang a couple of glass balls on the red maple and call it a day?”
But I was adamant. Ellen could decorate outside if she wished, but I wouldn’t.
Not now and not ever.
I have a good reason for feeling this way; I am a longtime sufferer of PTSD (Post Traumatic Sub-arctic Decorating). As with most people’s crippling psychological ailments, the cause can be traced back to childhood. And, more specifically, Mom.
When I was a kid, my mom had a hard-earned reputation for always having her crap together. I attributed this to her German work ethic, her German planning and organizational skills, and her German no-nonsense approach to everything. This German-ness was evident during the Christmas season, too; she would have all of her shopping done before Halloween.
Yes, she was that person.
A person can’t tackle every Christmas chore in October, however. Christmas shopping in October told the world you planned ahead. Christmas decorating in October, on the other hand, told the world you were a weirdo. Mom did not want to be perceived as a weirdo. The decorating would have to wait until December.
This waiting made Mom tense and cranky.
Come to think about it, there was clearly something about the Christmas season that made Mom go a little batty. The weather had a lot to do with it. When the temperatures dipped below freezing, Mom would suddenly get a vague yet visceral feeling that Christmas had snuck up on her without warning. Despite all of Mom’s best laid plans, she was now Behind Schedule. The actual date on the calendar was irrelevant; as far as she was concerned, every Christmas thing that wasn’t yet done needed to get done RIGHT NOW!
That was her cue to bellow up the stairs.
“Michael! You need to get the outdoor decorations up RIGHT NOW!”
“Why now?” I mumbled into my pillow. (Mom liked to announce my chores early on weekend mornings, when I was sleepy and docile.) “It’ll be warmer on Sunday. I’ll do it on Sunday.”
“No!” Mom exclaimed, “it needs to be done TODAY!”
I could’ve followed this up with another, “Why?” but there was no point. Christmas may have been four weeks away, but Mom needed decorations now and if I didn’t agree, then I would be deemed “lazy” and sometimes Mom had a habit of slapping lazy people.
So I got up, got dressed, and got to work.
The outside decorations at the Allegra house would never impress anyone. All I had to do was twist some garland around the vertical porch posts and follow it up with a string of lights. Easy peasy.
Only it wasn’t easy peasy. I may have been responsible for decorating the outdoors, but Mom was responsible for getting the supplies. She insisted on me using “live” garland–that is to say, garland made from real pine branches which, in her words, “looked better than the fake stuff.” This may have been true, but the fake stuff was designed to easily twist around porch posts. Pine branches don’t want to be twisted. They resist it. They fight you.
Also, tree branches are thicker and heavier than fake garland so I couldn’t tape or staple gun them into place. I had to use nails. It’s impossible to hold a nail in place while wearing winter gloves, so I needed to hammer barehanded in sub-freezing weather as the whipping wind slashed away at my bleeding knuckles. On a related note, a hammer hitting your finger hurts like crazy in any weather, but it hurts super crazy when your hands are borderline frostbit. And since my bare hands were trembling in the cold, I hammered my fingers a lot. And on the rare occasions when the hammer did find the nail head, the pine branches would split and fall apart and slide off the post and gush pine tar everywhere. And pine tar can only get off of your hands with Lava soap, which Dad didn’t buy because the last time he went to the grocery store, he went without the list because he was “sure he could remember everything.”
And so the 12-year old me, in my long, pointless effort to celebrate the birth of Jesus, muttered the F-word over and over while making a mental note to convert to Islam.
The job took me two hours and aged me several years. Then, as a kind of punctuation, while cleaning up I tripped over the stepstool and took a header into an adjacent snowball bush. Because of course I did.
“It looks great!” Mom declared as I trudged inside. She was trying to lift my spirits, but my spirits were unliftable. I was achy, numb, sticky, and hated everything. Soon I would feel the unbearable needle-like sting as my fingers began to defrost. It was only 11 in the morning (Dad wasn’t even out of his pajamas yet!) but I was exhausted enough to know that my Saturday was pretty much over. The rest of my day would consist of lying down, nursing my aches, and adding a Sam’s Club-sized bottle of Advil to my Christmas wish list.
“It’s over,” I told myself. And I believed it.
Until I heard Mom’s urgent voice thunder up the stars.
“Michael! We need to get the Christmas tree RIGHT NOW!”