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A Child’s Christmas in California

When I was a kid, before I understood about things like credit cards and hangovers, the holidays were an odd blend of stress and magic. My parents were from Ireland and brought only a few traditions or possessions with them; for the most part they tried to blend in as Americans as much as possible. We lived on the edge of the Mt. Diablo foothills, which were a lush and rolling green most years from about November through April. (I remember my mom’s horror when the hills turned brown in summer, and the temperature soared over 100ºF, but that’s another story.)

Dad was larger-than-life people (when he wanted to be) – he had a booming voice and sang well, and he was tallish, portly, bald on the top. When he got older, he had white hair, a pink nose, and a white goatee. Once a small child asked him, “Are you Santa Claus?” and he winked at her: “No. I’m Burl Ives.” Mom was petite, with near-black hair and hazel eyes; she somewhat resembled both Sophia Loren and Ingrid Bergman, only smaller and with an intriguing chip on the corner of her top front tooth. As for their progeny, well, there were three of us, my older brother and sister, and me. We were kind of funny-lookin’.

Dad absolutely loved Christmas, and always took charge of the decorating (sometimes at risk of life and limb since he was not well-adapted to things like ladders). Dad would put out a little tabletop creche every year, and then I’d rearrange it, and he’d put it back the way he liked it, and it was a running silent gag between us for ages, never mentioned yet a touchstone of Christmas, the season of passive-aggressive decoration feuds. He would always festoon the dining room and living room windows with handmade evergreen garlands. There was usually a clump of beribboned mistletoe collected from one of the local trees by my sister (she actually collected quite a lot of it then walked the neighborhood, selling bunches to buy Christmas gifts or cigarettes or whatever she was up to at the time).

We’d go to the local Co-Op grocery store at crack of dawn for their annual “Christmas Tree sale And Pancake Breakfast”, often be the first family there in the predawn, rainy morning, and we’d set off among the trees and that amazing smell, to find a Douglas fir, symmetrical and full, mysterious and dark and with any luck, a bird’s nest in it. We’d eat breakfast then get it home, and Dad would spend the rest of the day sawing and chopping and clipping and untangling and swearing. Mom would just retreat to the kitchen and make tea and a pile of flaky sausage rolls to stave off what people now refer to as “hangry”. Due to previous mishaps with our fierce house tiger, Dad always wired the top of the Christmas tree to the ceiling with a hook, then he’d have to spiral the C4 lights around the tree, made awkward because he couldn’t just toss the lights over the top due to said wire being in the way. Nobody ever dared to suggest he just put the damn cat out for the afternoon and then affix the wire. We had one blinking blue C4 light whose coating was cracked and faded. It had been shoplifted by a neighbor’s toddler, then passed off to Mom to belay some of that guilt, and that bulb blinked off and on for 14 years before it finally gave up admonishing us all as to the wickedness of receiving stolen goods.

For several years running, Dad created a little tableau in the front yard, with inflatable deer and a Santa that all squealed horribly when they were deflated at the end of the season. It’s odd, but I associate that smell of slightly musty vinyl (you know it if you’ve ever blown up a plastic reindeer) with Christmas, as much as I do wood-smoke, Douglas fir, peppermint, baking, or my brother burning plastic packaging in the fireplace.

Mom was not big on decorating. I remember one year she made a wreath fashioned of computer punch-cards, rolled into cones and spray-painted metallic gold. It was very, uh, Mid-Century Modern and somewhat atypical for Mom, who liked things plain and tweedy, and who generally hated the tackier aspects of Christmas. It was Dad who hung the shiny stuff and bought the ugly little kawaii plastic angel for our treetop; it was Mom who wanted the cranberries-and-popcorn, the imitation fruit and little birds and sweet tiny china bells from Germany. Martha Stewart would have died laughing at our Christmas trees. But Martha would also have hung her head in shame at Mom’s cooking. She would send us three kids (in early years accompanied by our dad) off into the muddy hills to “look for hobbits” among the oaks and buckeyes. (I didn’t know hobbits were fictional till I was about ten.) I was the youngest, and had trouble keeping up as the adobe clay wadded ever-heavier onto my sodden shoes. I never quite managed to see a hobbit, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. And while we were gone, she’d pour a gin-and-tonic and throw Dylan Thomas on the mono player while she cooked a massive – no, epic – Christmas feast. There was invariably a roast beast of one kind or another, roasted or mashed potatoes, several kinds and colors of vegetables, stuffed mushrooms, crusty San Francisco sourdough bread, sometimes a lobster bisque or a cracked Dungeness crab, or a composed butter-lettuce salad with shrimp and avocado… and then there were the desserts.

One Christmas, Mom made a mince pie, an apple pie, a fruitcake, cookies, trifle, and also let my brother (who liked fires) set a canned plum pudding ablaze on a plate puddled with brandy. If you don’t want to do the math, that’s six desserts plus a plethora of chocolate ornaments, ribbon candy and candy canes at our instant disposal… for five people. As a kid, I despised the mince, the fruitcake, and just picked the custard and cream out of the sherry-laced trifle. But now as an adult, that bitter/sweet/tart and slightly boozy combination sends me straight back to childhood. It’s the only alcohol I ever consume, and most of it bakes off or evaporates during aging, but there’s enough of a whiff to make me feel like I’m getting away with something naughty. I perch on the couch, listening to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and trying to figure out how to wrap a 36″ circumference gift with a 24″ wide piece of paper. It rarely goes as planned. I am my father’s daughter, for better or for worse, suspended in time between childhood and my own middle age, and his as well. As a kid I did a lot of eye-rolling, and sneering, although I loved singing carols with my family, or sitting in the living room by the fire, with everybody reading in silence or our sister playing clarinet or guitar. In my teens and twenties I became a bit more aware of how much I didn’t know (and just how odd my family was). I have so many questions, now, and will never be able to ask them.

Eventually the Aged Ps moved off to an apartment in San Francisco, and the dynamic changed a bit. My siblings and I would visit on Christmas Eve, and hide stuffed socks under their pillows (we never had formal stockings with names on them; just Dad’s old socks). Therein, Mom and Dad always found our family’s plunder of tradition: a tangerine with a leaf on the stem, a quarter, weird candy, a bar of really good chocolate, bizarre tinned meat products, tiny toys, useless puzzles. For dad, there was always a tobacco product (which I now regret), for Mom, always black licorice. And usually, someone would get a little black lump of coal or a tiny bundle of twigs, because nobody’s perfect. The first year in the apartment, Dad got a little wind-up ET doll that lurched along with his pointer figure raised in benediction; the second year, Dad set up the creche with ET among the wise men, and as the seasons rolled along, he added plastic crocodiles, and little china animals from Red Rose tea boxes, dinosaurs and unicorns and God-knows-what-else, until the Holy Family was surrounded by an adoring (and perhaps just slightly menacing) interplanetary zoo. And up above the stable, its arms and wings spread wide, the angel hovered in something like shock.

When the Aged Ps retired and returned to Ireland, it was to a tiny stone cottage out in the country. I visited four times, only once for Christmas, when Dad was fighting throat cancer (don’t smoke cigars, kids). There was no snow, but a hard frost laid ice crystals on anything inanimate and probably some sheep out there in the mist-swathed fields. Mom and I drove over to the next village over, which had a hardware store. We bought a Christmas tree and stand, and she drove us back in the dark, white-knuckling over black ice. I wrestled the tree into the yard, and then into a demonically complex metal stand. Then I hauled it into the cottage and began decorating it. The kawaii plastic angel was gone, as was the creche, the tinsel, and the shiny glass globes Mom had never liked anyway. But there were two strings of fairy lights, and the few ornaments they’d brought from California, mostly plastic fruit and battered felt birds with bead eyes, wire feet, and dyed feathers. One was a 5″ tall rooster that they’d named Chanticleer some time back after reading The Book of the Dun Cow. We had the tree about half-decorated when Dad came out to the living room, yawning from his nap, looked the tree blankly up and down, then kept walking on to the bathroom. When he came back out again, he barely gave us another glance, which really alarmed me. I said “Dad?”

He paused. “Yes?”

“What do you think of the tree?”

“Oh. Was I supposed to see that?”

“Yes.”

“Thought it was supposed to be a surprise.”

Mom and I exchanged a glance of relief. “Surprise!”

“Well, now, look at that!” He shuffled over and bent to unfasten Chanticleer from where I’d wired him to a lower branch, then reached up to perch the rooster at the tree’s top, leaning rakishly in mid-crow, with its dented feathers barely winning the fight against gravity. “Much better.”

It was. Much better.

And then we had tea.

Anybody got a prompt?

I am a visual artist and a writer. Primarily I’m a face painter for children’s parties and for festivals.  That is what some would consider craft-level painting, similar to tole painting on people.  There is a certain formula to follow in order to flatter the face, although there are many different styles from very realistic to random splatters.

I had writer’s block for over 30 years and started writing fiction again at the age of 52. It started out as fan fiction, but has taken on a life of its own. I had hoped to publish an actual book in 2019. Looks like Adulting 1A is going to move that back to 2020 or 2021.

One of my favorite things: working collaboratively. For instance, on the