It is much easier to imagine Christmas and all the traditions like cutting a tree up north where nature tosses in snow and blustery skies to make everyone’s cheeks rosy like the mythical Santa. In the south, in Florida, it’s a little harder to get that same snowman-winter wonderland feeling going. But we have our ways and if this is how you have always known Christmas then this is how Christmas ought to be.
Some years the temperature drops and it’s downright chilly but that never lasts more than a day or so. The chill itself felt like a gift savored but soon gone like a Popsicle in summer.
The tree was an important part of the ritual, building up to people gathering to eat too much turkey, tearing into presents and just being happy to be together. When the tree arrived Granny got out the boxes of decorations. There were long strands of silver tinsel that we put on the tree strand by strand (and after Christmas took off the same way and carefully laid out flat for the next year). Not like now where you see trees with all their tinsel still in place, on the curb awaiting trash pickup.
There were regular lights the size of the bulbs in today’s nightlights and a cherished string of bubble lights that we nursed along for many years. I don’t remember many individual ornaments but we had a few. It was really the warm glow that the lights threw around the room that I recall best.
We had a set of white reindeer and of course I painted one of their noses red with nail polish. I seem to recall a little sled, too.
Under the tree was a white skirt and before long it was nearly covered by mysterious wrapped gifts. My grandmother, who was the most upright and well behaved person otherwise would creep around the tree when she thought no one was looking and find each of her presents. She would handle them and bounce them up and down to get their weight and find out if they rattled. She would run her fingertips over the contours and try to figure what it was. My mother says that Granny would even unwrap and rewrap if she could get away with it and was not above poking around in the closets for gifts not yet wrapped.
Poppa passed away in 1981 and Granny’s last Christmas in 1983 was spent in a hospital in Gainesville after she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and would only last two weeks. We all came, her two daughters and their families, and took turns staying with her. For Christmas I had gotten her a new cane with an ornate brass handle bought before I knew she would not walk again. She unwrapped it and turned it over in her tired hands and said how pretty it was. She opened all her gifts lying in her hospital bed and exclaimed over them as if they were treasures but it tired her out and she soon slept.
On New Year’s Eve around 6 in the afternoon while my mother and sister were out to grab a bite to eat she closed her eyes a final time and went home.
The natural tree went away and was replaced by the silver one that my mom later kept in a box in the closet. We still gathered and decorated and plotted how to surprise each other and held hands while saying grace over turkey and dressing. We regained our sense of joy but it will always be tempered by the knowledge of those goodbyes.