December 1, 1975.
Thanksgiving is over, and you had waited an excruciating week for this day to happen—this being the day each year that the Christmas tree and decorations come out of hibernation.
You awaken early—earlier than usual—and lie in bed, waiting for some audible signs of parental wakefulness from the house at large. At 8 years old and still completely of the belief that a fat guy in a red suit would be keeping a sharp eye on you for the next 24 days, you exercise extreme restraint by not hopping out of bed and waking your three younger siblings—which would, in turn, awaken your parents prior to 6 a.m…and now that you know how to tell time, you’d have no recourse when questioned as to why you would do such a thing.
You manage to hold it together for an eternity (approximately seven minutes) before you hear your dad’s heavy footfalls in the hallway outside your bedroom door, on the way to the kitchen. Bounding out of bed as silently as possible—no mean feat when you sleep on the top bunk—you scurry into the hallway and down the stairs. Before he can even reach the kitchen, you plant yourself in front of him, eyes pleading, and he knows what you want before you even open your mouth. A small smile tweaks his mustache, and dropping his hand onto your shoulder, the two of you turn around and head down the basement stairs. Once at the bottom, you make your way to a diminutive door approximately halfway down the length of one of the basement walls—the access door to the crawlspace, which is where all things Christmas live off-season, in various dusty boxes next to the somehow terrifying hole in the floor that holds the even more terrifying oil tank.
Dad opens the door and ducks inside, flicking the light switch immediately, because he knows you will not enter until he does so. Once your eyes adjust, you feel that strange mixture of emotions that is part terror (of the dark, of spiders, of the oil tank hole and oil tank) and part irrepressible excitement as you spot the hallowed holiday storage containers.
Dad goes straight to the largest boxes, which house the artificial tree; this behemoth involves a fake trunk—albeit real wood, with holes in it—and dozens of twisted wire branches with tufts of long, green needles. You, however, only have eyes for the smaller containers, alongside the tree boxes. As Dad rummages through the spiny tree appendages muttering to himself, you begin digging through the haphazardly-stowed decorations, searching for your favorites. Your small, seeking hands extract a tangled disaster of tree lights—the huge colored ones, of course, and you know from experience that they would blister your skin if you touched them after they had been lit for a little while. Sometimes the tinsel would melt to the bulbs; as you stood in the crawlspace, you could practically smell the familiar, acrid odor of melting plastic.
Beneath the lights you find the individually wrapped (in toilet paper), mercury glass ornaments, each with a faceted indent that would reflect your face back to you in a thousand fractured images, fly-like. Not a Christmas season passes in which at least one of these fragile family heirlooms doesn’t fall and shatter on the hearth of the nearby wood burning stove.
Moving onto another box, you are oblivious to the fact that your father has left and returned to the crawlspace twice with tree paraphernalia. As he hunts about for the tree stand, your hands land upon a familiar shape. Ah! Here are the red plastic bells that hang outside our front door, blinking merrily and making tiny tinkling sounds as each bulb lights up. And here—yes! Here is the nativity set, the source of many a Christmas family feud among you and your siblings, as, in theory, each of us would be allowed to set up an equal portion of figures each year (but, as the oldest, you always manage to manipulate at least one sucker into handing a few of their shepherds or sheep over to you). Baby Jesus, however, would be placed somewhere secret, and wouldn’t make his appearance until Christmas eve, when he would—like a Christmas miracle—appear in the manger.
You wonder for a moment where Santa Claus fits into this holy narrative, and you open your mouth to ask, but then Dad tells you to grab the smallest box of decorations and bring it upstairs. You do so, and your attention is diverted from that timeless question that every parent dreads, the answer to which opens that bittersweet door between childhood and adolescence…one that shuts with a whisper and locks with painful permanence behind you, signifying losses you won’t realize you even sustained for many years to come.