Our household, like most others on our street in Pasadena, California, consisted of three generations. It was a result of the Great Depression, where people in my parent’s generation were not able to afford their own home and, with children in tow, simply moved in with their parents, or vice versa. Therefore, for most of my life I lived with my father and brother in my paternal grandparent’s home. It was crowded, especially when my aunt, uncle and cousin joined us for a while, but always wonderful, creating an enriched childhood for me, especially during the holiday seasons.
Christmas at our house started the weekend after Thanksgiving when the men in the family, my grandfather, father, brother and I, piled into my father’s black 1941 Buick sedan and went looking for a Christmas tree. No, we didn’t take an axe or saw and head to the woods, we lived in Southern California and were simply off to a Christmas tree lot.
Usually the lot was at a large grocery store (supermarket wasn’t a word then) where huge bundles of fir trees were being unloaded from giant trucks into rapidly growing piles in the parking lot.
The four of us, with my grandfather orchestrating every move, exited the car and we two youngest grabbed trees one-by-one from the pile marked “six to seven feet” and stood each one upright for my father and grandfather (mostly my grandfather) to judge. We jealously eyed the “rich” people contemplating the Silver Tip trees, which cost an outrageous fifty cents a foot, while we went through what seemed like hundreds of common fir trees, dropping each one back onto the pile after hearing words from my grandfather like, “too crooked,” “not full enough” and “it’s flat on one side.” Finally, one of us came across what my grandfather said was “the tree” – the best in the pile by far.
My father paid for the tree, which usually cost under a dollar, and we prepared to take it home. We thought about putting it in the car’s trunk and tying a red flag to it’s tip or tying it to the top of the car, like most people did, but that could damage it. We had a better way to get it home. We two kids stuck our arms out the car’s windows and held it tight against the side of the car as my father carefully drove home, just daring to be stopped by a policeman.
We bought just the tree, the wooden stand cost another quarter. Besides, my grandfather was a carpenter who could build anything out of wood and always reminded us that he still had last year’s stand – somewhere.
Home at last, without interference from the police, we called to my grandmother to come see the tree while my grandfather went looking for last year’s tree stand. While my grandmother was telling us that it was the most beautiful Christmas tree she had ever seen my grandfather would give up looking for last year’s stand and make another one out of “something” he had lying around.
Having spent most of his life as a carpenter, my grandfather had an amazing set of ancient carpenter tools to use for this purpose. Perhaps set is the wrong word, a collection would be better. He had piles of tools that modern carpenters wouldn’t even recognize, all tucked away in an long, oiled wooden carpenter’s box that had a carrying rope which fit over his shoulder. Of course, the first thing he needed was a hammer and there was never one to be found amongst the tools. Hammers always seemed to be somewhere else, usually set aside after having served as a tomahawk for the latest session of “Cowboys and Indians.” Nails were another thing.
My grandfather had a collection of nails. Nails, to him, were treasure. If he saw one in the street, he picked it up and put it in his pocket to take home, straighten and put in a coffee can for future use. They cost real money when he was in the business, and he remembered that.
Once the stand was completed, the base of the tree was cut level – after two or three tries and lots of loud discussion – and the stand was firmly nailed on with no less than four huge nails.
Most bridges weren’t that secure and the stand was on the tree for eternity, unless of course, it had to be taken off and the tree re-cut because the tree proved to be too tall for the house.
We proudly carried the tree into the house, in an operation fully choreographed by my grandfather, where it was stood up in the corner of the living room and bent as it hit the ceiling because it was always too tall. Six to seven foot trees were always at least nine feet tall. We knew that, but we never learned – or maybe we never cared – because it was part of the ceremony.
Knocking over at least two objects that my grandmother cherished in the process, we took the tree outside again, hammered the stand off and cut a few more inches off the bottom of the tree. Once the stand was reattached, we marched the tree back into the house, where it finally stood in the corner, always leaning badly to one side. We shimmed it, bent it, pushed and shoved it, and, finally brought it to straight by fastening it to nails in the wall – nails left over from previous years – with fishing line.
Usually at that point, Blackie, the dog that belonged to the Johnsons next door but often came to our house to eat, chase mice and have puppies, would get up from her favorite spot near the gas heater, sniff around the tree and go back to sleep, apparently giving her approval. With that, we were ready for the lights.
Christmas lights used to come in strings in which if one burned out, they all went out. Of course, ours never worked the first time we tried them in spite of the fact that they worked when we put them away the year before. We would have to remove each bulb and replace it with a good one we bought last year at the after- Christmas sale (frugal we were) until the bad one was found and replaced.
For some reason the bulbs shaped like a snowman or Santa Claus, which were ancient even in the 1950s, always seemed to work and never burned out. A comment about this always brought out the “they don’t make things like they used to” statement from my grandfather.
Once the working lights were on the tree, my grandfather would get out his ancient extension cord – the scariest extension cord you ever saw. It wasn’t red, green, black or even brown, it was made of twisted wires covered in a badly worn tan cloth with a poorly replaced plug on one end and on the other end a brass socket which had a turn-switch, that sometimes, but not often, worked. That is what made it scary, since when you turned the switch, it made funny, popping electrical sounds and even smelled a little. Thank God that is all that ever happened.
Finally, plug lights into cord, plug cord into wall plug, carefully turn switch and…nothing. Somehow, in the time between when we had tested the lights and that moment, the bulbs had loosened, burned out or maybe just given up.
After fixing the lights and putting the tree-topper in place, my grandmother went to a drawer in her bureau for the first ornament. No, it wasn’t the Christmas tree candle holders which has been banned from use for years, those were in a drawer in the kitchen and although she would let me put them on the tree, lighting the candles was forbidden. What she was after was an ornament that she had received on her birthday – her real birthday – in 1878. It was glass, blue, about five inches across and must have been a quarter of an inch thick. It weighed half a pound or more.
She carefully hung it on a large branch, close to the trunk of the tree, where it would be safe from everything and everyone, including Blackie, who often wobbled the tree while trying to nibble on candy canes or strung popcorn and cranberries.
With that ornament in place, the Christmas season was here.