PumpkinKnitter

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Trees, Part III


I have about a dozen ornaments, as well as several ropes of beads, that used to decorate my maternal Grandmother's tree each year. My grandparents lived in a big old house in Detroit, not too far from the Polish enclave of Hamtramck. Each Christmas Eve the entire family would gather for dinner and the Christmas celebration. My Grandmother had ten children, and when all of the children, and spouses, and grandchildren arrived, there was barely enough room to move in the house. I can still remember the mind-numbing excitement of Christmas Eve as a child. The excitement and anticipation would build the entire week before Christmas, and the day of Christmas Eve itself was almost more than a child could bear. The tree looked the same each year. My grandfather always bought a tree too big and cut the top off. The lights and ornaments and icicles always looked the same, and my cousins and I wouldn't have it any different. And the presents! In the days when there were only a few of us grandkids, all the aunts and uncles would have a present for each of us. What bounty! We would stand near the tree, looking for packages with our names on them, until someone would chase us away and tell us to go play somewhere else. But who wanted to go anywhere else? Dinner would finally be served once everyone had arrived -- Polish dishes, stuffed cabbage, meatballs, rye and pumpernickel bread and angel wings for dessert (dough fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar). But then, it seemed only the grownups wanted to eat. We wanted to get on with the gifts! Finally, everyone in the family would gather in the living room and then, -- listen, sleighbells ringing! Santa was here! The family owned a Santa suit and every year someone would get dressed up at a neighbor's house and come pound on the front door with a bag of presents. Of course we kids didn't realize what was going on for a while, until we got bigger and figured out that someone always disappeared right after dinner was over. But back then, it was overwhelming, nerve-wracking anxiety. What would Santa give me? What would he have to say? Was I naughty or nice? And then, after all the presents were opened, the grownups would visit a little more and then it would be time to go home. That long drive home through the city, white with snow and alive with Christmas lights on all the houses and storefronts. Would we make it home before Santa came to our house? Then home, and quickly to bed, and soon, despite all the excitement, sleep until morning, when once again the tree would be piled with gifts.

Eventually my cousins and I got bigger, and no longer got gifted so abundantly as before. And once we reached adult age, we were expected to take over the responsibility for making it a special evening for the little ones. One year, the family decided my new husband had to take his turn playing Santa. He was willing, of course, and so, after a suitable time had passed after dinner was finished, he was dispatched to a neighbor's house to dress up in the old Santa suit. Christmas Eve that year was at my aunt's house in the Detroit suburbs; the houses were fairly far apart and there was quite a bit of snow piled up in the streets. He struggled over to the neighbor's and dressed, then started working his way back to the house. Suddenly, out of nowhere, with a great hue and cry, some of the neighborhood dogs appeared and made a beeline for the fellow in the red suit with the big white pack, stumbling his way through the snowdrifts. The old man (who was a lot younger then and a bit quicker on his feet) looked up, saw the dogs bearing down on him, and took off running through the thigh-high drifts as if his life depended on it. Bag of gifts bouncing on his back, sleighbells ringing like mad, he aimed for the front door of the house, where my father was watching for his return. He made it to the door a few feet ahead of the dogs and shook the door handle, only to find that my father was laughing so hard that he couldn't see straight to open the door. Dogs, Santa, a few dozen gifts and the sleighbells piled up on the porch in snowy chaos. The children were yelling, "Santa! Santa!", but Santa was beating off the dogs with anything available. Finally someone got the door open and got Santa in with the gifts fairly intact. The dogs raced away into the night, and Santa finally got to distribute the packages, red faced, out of breath, and his whiskers all askew.


He never volunteered to play Santa again.

It's been nearly fifty years since those long ago Christmas Eve's and the family back home is still having them. This year my sister is hosting it at her home, and even though it is some twenty years since I have been home for Christmas Eve, everything will still be the same. Although, I must admit, I probably wouldn't recognize most of the little children there anymore. And they wouldn't know me. But that's what a family is. It keeps on going, even though the cast of characters changes, and ages, and starts all over with a new generation. The toys change, the decorations change, the setting changes, but I could walk right in next Saturday night, and know that I was home.

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