Saturday, December 01, 2018

Ghosts of Christmases Past

IMAGE: Glade jul by Viggo Johansen (1891).

Christmas trees are as American as cherry pie, and as German as sauerbraten.

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We always had a tree in our house growing up in Ohio, except for 1968, when the ornaments were suspended by red ribbons from the top edge of the front window, and our presents were found in a big cardboard box that morning.

We can only speculate as to why.

In those days, the end of the year was a busy time for Dad at Procter and Gamble, with all the yeoman's work he was doing for the big year-end meeting. And in the few years before his MS was diagnosed, the stress of working for a living was taking quite a toll on him. When these things happen in our lives, something has to give. And maybe this time it did, just this once. But we'll never know for sure.

PHOTO: Paul Alexander at the annual Saint Nicholas Day Pageant, Epiphany of our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church, December 1989.

I lived in the house where I grew up until moving to the DC area thirty-eight years ago this month. With very little furniture (or much of anything) in an efficiency apartment, I might have gone that first year without a tree.

PHOTO: Paul Alexander pays his respects to "Father Nicholas," Epiphany of our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church, December 1989.

I married a Byzantine Rite Catholic in 1982, and our remembrance of the Birth of Our Savior, as Pope John Paul II would have said, breathed with both lungs. We began the celebration on the sixth of December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas, an important one for Eastern Catholics. In keeping with eastern European custom, our tree was not put up until Christmas Eve, when the decorating began as the sun was setting, and the meatless "Holy Supper" was about to begin. We would end the celebration exactly one month later, on the sixth of January, the Epiphany, or "Little Christmas."

When our once-ostensibly-happy home fell apart in 1990, I moved to Georgetown. It was the end of the world as I knew it, but my basement studio had a two-foot-tall artificial tree, suitably decorated, as if to suggest that hope would breed eternal.

PHOTO: 3114 N Street, Northwest, Georgetown, DC, where the author lived in the early 1990s.

In 1994, I left Georgetown for the Virginia suburbs. Moving to the suburbs at all was my first mistake. My second mistake was moving into a group house with three other guys, while approaching the age of forty, and having a son visit every other weekend. They were all okay, except maybe for an unscrupulous landlord whom we later sued to get our security deposits back. I'm still waiting for it. (Patrick Nelson, I know where you live.) But while I was there, I offered to decorate the tree. One of the housemates, besides being an underdeveloped alpha male who ridiculed my listening to Gregorian chant recordings, was crestfallen to learn that I decorated the oversized houseplant rather than obtaining a more conventional evergreen.

It looked pretty sharp, actually.

PHOTO: Home altar of Chez Alexandre without the Christmas tree, Arlington, Virginia.

In the eleven years that I had the good sense to move back into town, within walking distance of everything, and without roommates while in my forties, my basement studio -- that's right, I spent a total of sixteen years living in people's basements -- always had a Christmas tree, if only the usual two-foot-artificial variety. When I finally bought my own townhouse (again) in 2005, the practice would continue, although some years I was sent a real one.

PHOTO: Christmas tree replacing the home altar of Chez Alexandre, from 2005 to 2016, Arlington, Virginia.

Over time, Chez Alexandre was graced with more lights, and was introduced to a cross between a Chinese lantern and Mexican piñata, direct from the Philippines, known as a "parol." And the sixth-to-sixth schedule was expanded to begin with the First Sunday of Advent, beginning with the tree itself, followed by the full monty of decorating just nine days before the feast, and still ending with what was now called "Tres Reyes." For the longest time, the mini-tree itself would replace the home altar in the living room.

In the mid-1980s, I was invited to a Christmas reception at the Vatican Embassy. They had a number of magnificently decorated trees, one of them graced only with miniature Nativity scenes. For many years, I have building a collection of little creche decorations of my own. Then last year, I got a taller tree; still artificial, but at least five feet tall, already pre-lit, and proudly occupying the landing of the stairs. It is only now that I can display the full array of Nativity ornaments, inspired by or originating from all over the world, from South America to Southeast Asia, and places all around and in between. I make a few exceptions to the rule for sentimental reasons. The guitar is one indicator.

VIDEO: The present Christmas tree of Chez Alexandre, Arlington, Virginia, since 2017. The ancient German carol "O Tannenbaum" performed by the United States Army Band Chorus.

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As the tree follows us through the years, it tells the story of ourselves, and of our lives. Its evergreen branches are a sign of hope when all is cold and dark, with the promise of the Light that is to come.

But still, it all comes down on the sixth of January.

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