Last December at school, my daughter sang Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer alongside Celebrate Kwanzaa and Chanukah, Oh Chanukah at her winter recital. One night after her recital, we paid one of our regular visits to my parents’ home. As we greeted each other, my daughter looked around the house and asked my mother, “Abuela, are you Jewish?” My mother answered no and asked why.
“Do you celebrate Christmas?” my then 5-year-old daughter asked. “Of course I do!” my mother said. ”Then why don’t you have Christmas decorations in your house?” the girl asked, tilting her head in confusion. It was a complicated question to answer for my mother. The passage of time had changed her perception of preparing for Christmas.
At one time, my mother had been the Mexican Martha Stewart of Christmas decorating. Her tree was basto, as she called it, decked full of the colorful ornaments and mementos collected over the years: a picture of my brother in a soccer uniform when he was six, a ceramic doll of me in a bathing suit, the sunflower sphere her best friend sent her one year, and dozens of the tin ornaments she brought to the United States from Mexico.
She never paid attention to the Pottery Barn catalogues with carefully choreographed trees in the same tones—silver, or gold or red. Her trees were never generic.
The thought of hiring a decorator to do the job seemed appalling to her. She took this job personally and would shoo us away from the tree when we tried to help. She had her own method and order to stringing the lights and hanging the ornaments and to her, we only made it chaotic. Every year she would buy one or two really nice items, like the robust, porcelain Santa decked out in a beautiful hand-stitched red outfit, to add to her collection. And so the ornament boxes accumulated through the years, neatly organized along the rafters.
During college, coming to my parents’ house at Christmas with the fireplace roaring, the wreaths on the door and the tree shining in the living room was a touchstone. My brother and I knew we were home.
FIRST FAKE, THEN NOTHING
But then we grew up. We moved out and began our own adult lives. And one year, my mother declared that she was buying a fake tree. The fake tree was smaller and easier to put together than a real one. There would be no lugging it on top of the car, dragging it through the front door and then balancing it on the tree pedestal in the living room.
A few years after I got married and had children, she declared she was no longer going to put up a tree. It was not as fun to decorate for just my dad and her. My family had a tree at home and the kids saw it more frequently. Besides, she said, the boxes of ornaments were too heavy to bring down from the rafters. Her arthritic shoulders ached when she placed the ornaments high on the tree.
REAWAKENING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
Eventually, her Christmas decorating whittled down to a couple of poinsettias in the living room and the family began gathering at our house. It always saddened me to see how my mother stopped decorating. It was a visual reminder that she was carrying on in years. I hoped she would change her mind, but I understood that she now considered decorating a chore more than a joyful event.
But it was my daughter’s question last year that revived that old spirit. So this year, my mother spent an entire afternoon decorating her house in a different, yet lovely manner. She hung wreaths, bought poinsettias and strung her collection of Mexican tin decorations along the archways of her dining room. She placed stockings for each member of her family along the chimney. She placed the garland with berries along the stair banister. And while she did not put up a real tree, she created her own version. She bought a wrought iron family tree and decorated it with all of our pictures and mini Santas.
When my daughter saw her house, she gasped, “This is beautiful, Abuela!” and spent the afternoon playing with the decorations. She now knows that her abuela does indeed believe in the spirit of Christmas.
True, the wrought iron tree does not smell like pine needles. But it is bright and beautiful and most of all, it captures the essence of Christmas: family, joy and the snapshots of us through the years together as one.