As the rising tides of Yule commence breaking their whitecaps of nog upon the shores of discounted flat-screen TVs, I am moved to put down my Bartlett’s Guide to Less Familiar Metaphors and Idioms of Ill Repute, toss another copy of Kenny G’s “Miracles: The Holiday Album” on the fire, and reflect upon the familial Christmas traditions of my Toughskins-clad youth. Here’s a preview: Cardboard fireplace.
As I’ve recounted on more than one occasion, I grew up in the house in which my parents still live, near the rhythmic, flowing streams of traffic along I-70 in lovely Independence, Missouri. Things, of course, were simpler in my days of minor status, when such quaint things as the OPEC oil crisis, stagflation and Iran hostage imbroglio permeated the national psyche instead of today’s collective need to “Snapchat a hot selfie.” But I digress.
The Christmas traditions around the Fox household formed quickly and remained steadfast through space and time if not high school graduation. Most were perennial, one or two more quadrennial. But they all combined to make the season the weird, wacky, vaguely militaristic, orange-scented celebration of our Savior’s birth the good Lord intended it to be, assuming a rather loose interpretation of Philemon. I’ve selected a sampling for your mockery below.
First, our house was not anywhere close to being what today’s media elite would dub a McMansion, or what people in Frisco call a starter home. It did only have one bathroom, but since my brother and I were brothers instead of sisters, that didn’t prove too difficult an obstacle to overcome during adolescence. We had no vaulted ceilings or second or third formal living rooms into which we could install a 15-foot Douglar fir freshly hewn from weird Uncle Boog’s tree and alpaca farm. Nor could we enrobe the 17th century fireplace mantle with holly grown in the guest wing’s attached greenhouse because no fireplace existed. We rolled in a Barcelona brown raised ranch, baby. Hard core.
So we opted for the science-and-technology route and chose a factory-crafted tree sculpted from the finest polyvinyl chloride mid-70s mass production techniques could produce. And we got a cardboard fireplace. Don’t you judge us. I loved both the fake tree (Reusable! Hypoallergenic! 94% immune to spontaneous combustion!) and fake fireplace. Partly because they were the only things I knew, and partly because they only made an appearance once a year. How special is it to hang a sock on a fireplace when you see that fireplace every day compared to having to build the fireplace one tab A into slot B at a time just to put up your bedazzled-before-the-Bedazzler-existed stocking? Not very, Chachi. Corrugated memories for the win.
Second, Mom always (in my memory) made Pillsbury Orange Sweet Rolls with Icing™. Homemade? Sorta. Delicious? You betcha. Christmas morning just wasn’t Christmas morning (although I’m not sure what it turned into – President’s Day perhaps) without the prepackaged goodness proffered by a giggling boy of dough. That we baked and drowned in frosting.
Third, when we finally made it to my maternal grandparents’ house after visiting my dad’s folks in the afternoon, mayhem would ensue in the form of my great aunt Marie. My grandpa’s older sister, Marie was (to the untrained eye) a quiet, petite woman in her late 70s. To her extended family of five nieces and nephews and their assorted offspring, however, she was a wrapping paper William Tell, able to pop you on the head with a bit of gift wrap from 15 paces. Of course, were she still with us, she would deny ever being the instigator of such bedlam. But the twinkle in her eye said otherwise.
Finally, and most spectacularly, my brother and I would, moments after the tree was decorated, commence turning the faux fir into our very own Battlestar Galactinerd. By which I mean we loaded it up with paper airplanes. Squadrons of them. Flown, one by one, into their temporary hangar from the far end of the hall – my bedroom at one end and the tree/hardened air force base at the other. You might think my mom would be horrified at the sight of a quarter-ream of wide-ruled hellfire missiles lurking behind her decoupage ornaments. But she was not. I can only surmise – now that I’m a father of three delightful scamps myself – that she figured there were much worse things two young boys could be doing than basically hurling compressed wood pulp at a plastic simulacrum of a conifer created by the original Renaissance Fairies in 16th century Germany.
And she would be right.
Because after David and I had our fill of filling the tree with Good King Wenceslas’s Air Command, we turned our not-quite-deficient attention to another mark: The Afro Death Star. You see, my brother from the same mother and I both have curly hair. Said noggin-bushes were inherited from our mom. And, given the timeframe of the late-70s/early-80s, Mom’s coiffure was generally round and fairly dense. And the perfect target for a pointy-tipped finger jet. Mom would, at times, make the mistake of taking a nap on the living room sofa, which left her fuzz (as we called three of the four hairstyles in our family) vulnerable to attack. Records from the era are spotty at best, but I believe our record for successful ’fro infiltration was four planes before the added weight roused Mom from her deserved slumber and sent us scampering down the hallway.
An odd Christmas tradition you say? Perhaps. But consider the fact that, despite having hundreds of paper spears launched at her face year after year, Mom never suffered a single eye injury. Now that’s a Christmas miracle.
*Jason Fox wishes you a Christmas rife with Burl Ives, and hopes his mother forgives him for this column. *