Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas, Then and Now

15401 Macauley Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio
December 24, 1969

The Palmer family Christmas tree - carried from the frozen parking lot of Saint Jerome’s Elementary School by my father George and some of my siblings a few hours earlier - stands in our cramped purple living room, fragrantly unfurling in the warmth of the house as it silently awaits our attention.  It is some years not the most handsome of trees, but by Christmas Eve there is no longer that big a selection left.  It is, however, chosen carefully and unhurriedly by those in attendance, and my father is no doubt his usual patient self as we race up and down the remaining aisles in search of just the right one.

We start with strands of lights: the large, standard, conical bulbs widely available at the time, of course, but also thin, colored glass tubes filled with some sort of liquid that bubble once they are plugged in.  This takes time, the stringing of the lights, as dad is not one for slapdash work of any kind; they must weave into the branches just so and completely circle the tree, lest someone caught in the tiny sliver of space between it and the wall not see some illumination.  No glaring bare spots allowed.

Next comes the box of ornaments.  A few extravagantly plumed, dove-like birds appear and are clipped into the green recesses of the spruce or fir or whatever we finally choose.  They remind me of something women in the 1940's might have worn on their hats; something my mom’s wacky Aunt Theda would have liked and perhaps bought at Higbee's, the fancy department store downtown on Public Square.  Large, clear glass orbs with our favorite Walt Disney cartoon characters trapped within are carefully unwrapped and strategically placed on the sturdier branches, as they are fragile and probably an expensive purchase at the time.  Gaudy Styrofoam balls covered in shiny fabric - ornately adorned with pushpins, sequins and other gewgaws - fill the big gaps in the boughs, and snowmen and angels of baked salt dough, probably painted by Brownies and Cub Scouts after they harden for a day, are placed here and there.  These look a bit crude compared with some of the spiffier ornaments collected throughout the years, but in mom’s eyes they are as coveted as any other family creation in the house.  Then one by one we each add our own shiny, mirrored red orb - hand-painted with our name and our birth year by dad’s sister, our Aunt Mary Helen - followed by long garlands of cranberries and freshly popped popcorn that we strung together earlier.

Outside the wind chill is howling off Lake Erie, and Jack Frost soon etches the night windows with a fractured, snowflake, fantasy landscape.  Inside Mitch Miller and the Gang is on the record player, loudly chanting a cappella versions of Deck the Halls and Jingle Bells and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, followed by Andy Williams crooning his silken, baritone Little Drummer Boy.

By the time the tinsel makes its appearance we are surely tired of the decorating ceremony, no doubt anxious to dig into all the holiday goodies on the dining room table.  We throw the tinsel in handfuls at the tree, hoping no one will notice, only to take it off again and add it single strand by strand as my father likes and - amid our complaints and eye rolling - demands.

At last the angel is eased on top of the tree.  At last some neighborhood friends and cousins arrive.  Finally we are free to eat dad's New England fish chowder, jumbo shrimp with cocktail sauce or a slimy oyster should we dare, and taste the traditional holiday treats from mom's side of the family: clove-scented, powdered sugar-dusted kourabiéthes and Greek walnut cake.

Speaking of mom, before long someone will have to rush her to the hospital with an acute asthma attack, brought on perhaps by the shrimp, perhaps by the unseen organisms lugged home with the tree, perhaps by the sheer stress of it all.  And later, even though we try to be diligent and make sure he doesn't ingest it, Perky the Siamese cat will calmly saunter through the living room with long, shiny strands of tinsel extruding from his back end.

Early the next morning we will wake our parents at 5:00, then again every half-hour until 7:00, at which time we finally coerce them from the snug confines of their bedroom.  As we gather in an excited mass of seven Palmer kids at the top of the stairs (AG, Thea, Molly, Peter, Anne, Susan, Stephen), mom will tiptoe down to light up the tree.  From above we will listen as she rustles about, listen as she emits little “oohs” and “ahs” at all the surprise stuff Santa has left behind, which to our young and eager ears is excruciating.  If she didn't the night before, at this point she will probably take a small bite of the cookie and a quick sip of the milk that we placed beneath the chimney before going to bed on Christmas Eve.

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3225 Octavia Street - Apartment #2
San Francisco, California
December 24, 2010

I don't own a cat, and I don't leave cookies out for Santa anymore, but I will be opening a bottle of bubbly early on Christmas Eve, toasting my friends and loving family alike: happy I can celebrate with the former and wishing I could be with the latter.  Given a little bit of luck my version of dad's New England fish chowder will be finished and warming on the stove, just like in Cleveland, Ohio three hours earlier on the day.  Just like it has for many, many years.  Join me in spirit if you will and raise a glass or two.  Even if our families are far away let’s celebrate as such.  Let’s clink some glasses and sing some carols and eat some holiday treats and throw up the tree.  I am not as concerned with the placement of the lights as my father once was, but I do love me some good, old-fashioned tradition.

I no longer sit at the top of the stairs anymore, either - anxiously waiting for mom to finally invite us all down to the living room with the purple walls.  To a tree surrounded by gifts from our parents, from our family Kris Kringles and from Santa; to a breakfast of dad's favorite candied fruit roll; to the carefree, sepia-tinged, Super-8 images of those Christmas mornings long ago.

My sister Thea with dad's fave: the Christmas Roll

I do, however, try to rediscover the magic of Christmas each and every December 25th.  Try to reconnect with the wide-eyed child in us all.  These days a quick cup of coffee, a bagel and a nice long hike are usually on the holiday radar, and usually do the trick.  It's a tradition I cherish: a rejuvenating romp beneath the sometimes piercingly blue winter skies of Northern California.  A communion with the wonders of Mother Earth.  Given the early rains this year I've got my sights set on Cataract Falls in Marin County (details and photos perhaps coming your way via The Headlands Report 2011).  Given the monumental, life-changing events this year - the lofty, encouraging peaks and the immobilizing, mind-numbing depths - it may be hard to celebrate, but I will try.

For Susan.

For Aunt Mary Helen and for Aunt Peash.  For Stephen.  For my mother: may she somehow continue to find the strength she needs.  For Ed and Peter and Matthew: may recovery and healing happen.

Hell, even for Peace on Earth: a bandied about phrase and a futile wish if they're ever was one.  Too bad, all that, because just imagine what we humans might accomplish if it actually came to pass.  Imagine the time, the resources, the money, the creativity and the freedom such an milestone might unleash!  Okay, never mind.  Don't waste your time.  It's been over 2000 years, for god's sake (uh oh...that may be one of the problems).

Yikes!  That certainly spiraled downward quickly.

Okay then: how's this?  I will celebrate for the promise of the New Year.

*  *  *  *  *

Look to this Day!
For it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the
Verities and Realities of your Existence:
The Glory of Action,
The Bliss of Growth,
The Splendor of Beauty.

For Yesterday is but a Dream and
Tomorrow only a Vision;
But Today well lived makes Every
Yesterday a dream of Happiness,
And Every Tomorrow a vision of Hope.
Look well, therefore, to this Day!

- Kālidāsa, a Sanskrit writer and poet

*  *  *  *  *

Past and Present: a polar bear made by my sister Molly
and mom's Santa from the 1960's

Palmer Family Treats
Above: Anne's kourabiéthes, Mom's anise-scented pizzelles
Below: Molly's rum cake, Thea's raspberry ribbons

Santa: aka Ginger and George

*  *  *  *  *

All righty, then!  Time to clean the apartment.  Time to break out the box of decorations and hang my childhood Christmas stocking (45 years old and still stuffable).  Time to make a shopping list for the fish chowder and Greek walnut cake and whatever else I can muster up.  Time to do this holiday thing, lest the holiday thing pass me by!

Happy Kwanzaa, cyber-hood.
Happy Hanukkah.
And have a very Merry Christmas.

Peter J. Palmer


  1. Beautiful. This is one I'll cherish!

    love you - and merry christmas -

  2. Brings back memories of own childhood.
    So happy to have you in my life!

  3. Peter, I started reading this before Christmas and then got caught up in my travels, so I've just finished it. It's beautiful. I would love to hear what is going on in your life. I am somewhat out of it in the SF scene these days but know that you have made some changes. Fill me in when you have a chance.
    Evelyn still works!