Saturday, December 19, 2015

Come See Our Tree

In the late 1940s there was a Christmas tradition in our extended family. I don’t know that the tradition ever had a name but the theme was ‘come see our tree.’ It involved maybe 8 to 10 families. Each family would extend an invitation to see their tree; always between Christmas and New Year. Conflicting dates/times would be resolved and a visitation schedule would evolve. Sometimes there were two or three visits on the same day.

What would happen is everyone would meet at the appointed time for example at Aunt Annie’s and Uncle Ollie’s house. Christmas cookies and beverages were provided by the hosts. While the guests were munching cookies the hosts would show their tree and the presents they’d received. Oohs and ahhs were mandatory. Aunt Annie was really good at withering looks of disapproval if the proper appreciation was not forthcoming. My dad referred to her as “any face” because of the countless expressions she had in her arsenal. They and everyone from that generation are gone so I can say that without offending anyone.

The trees were fresh; bought at one of the many lots that sprang up on Milwaukee’s south-side, so each tree was unique. I vividly remember walking up and down the rows of trees, hoping my dad would buy one so we could leave. There was always a chill and dampness in those lots that didn’t seem natural to me. It was kind of spooky. If mom was with us I could count on this verbal exchange between them - “Hank, don’t tie that tree on the car top. It’ll fall off.” Dad would reply, “Dorothy, it’s going on top! I don’t want those damn needles in the trunk!” It always went on top and never fell off.

You could sort of gauge a family’s financial condition by the type and height of their tree…the taller the tree the more it cost. A 6’ Scotch pine was the cheapest and that’s what most of us had. If you had an 8’ Douglas fir…well, you were the cat’s meow. There were no artificial trees that I remember. You could buy a spray to ‘flock’ your tree but no one in our family did it. That was for snooty rich people earning $2.00 an hour or more and living in $30,000 houses. Tree decorations were usually a mix of boughten and home-made ornaments, many of the later being generations old. Christmas cookies were home-baked, and here too it was proper form to compliment the hostess. For Christmas drinks there was beer and soda with ginger ale being a favorite, but also a cocktail. Brandy alexanders and strawberry daiquiris were favorites of the ladies while the men usually opted for ‘a shot ‘n beer.’ For us kids the cookies and soda were the best part of those visits. They wouldn’t let us play with the new toys under the tree. After two hours or so we’d leave and regroup at Aunt Helen’s and Uncle Tony’s house where the whole scenario would be repeated.

The presents under the trees were usually socks, ties or underwear for the men (gee…thanks a lot! I really needed this!). The kids would have a few modest toys; dolls for the girls and cowboy stuff for the boys. The women usually were given jewelry but occasionally a man would buy a new stove or set of pots and pans for his wife “for her kitchen.” The other women would turn green with envy. All the jewelry giving guys knew that during the drive home they’d be hearing some version of, “…I hope you saw what Bill gave Evelyn?” How times have changed!

Those Christmas visits provided a lot of enjoyment, and helped to refresh family bonds. They also provided fodder for critiques afterward. When my mother and her sister got together I’d hear comments like: “…and that necklace Frank gave Judy that she was making such a fuss about? Well I know I saw it at the five-and-dime two weeks ago.” or, “Marge used too much sugar in her cookies again. Why doesn’t somebody tell her?” and, “don’t tell me Alice baked those cookies. I know bakery cookies when I see them!” There were occasional comments about someone’s cocktail, “…there wasn’t much brandy in Carl’s brandy alexanders but I suppose they need their money for other things; he’s not working steady you know.” They had to know that others were likely making similar comments about them and that was probably their justification. Except for grandmas and grandpas. You never back-bit a grandma or grandpa. It just wasn’t done. If something wasn’t quite right at their house during the Christmas visit you excused it because of their age and respect due them. Everybody else was fair game. Including me. We were at Aunt Helen and Uncle Huntz’s house. They had Grandpa Graf root beer which was my favorite soda. I asked for a second bottle and was told by Uncle Huntz that I’d already had one bottle. I blurted out, “but you had three beers!” Word got back to my mother that Aunt Helen said I was ill-behaved. Well la-di-da!

Though the men complained about having to wear a tie I think all of us; adults and kids looked forward to ‘come see our tree’. The holiday season wouldn’t have seemed complete without it. I miss that tradition and the heady aroma of pine resin. That kind of thing isn’t done here in Chiclayo. Some families put up a few lights but I don’t see many trees, though there is a wide variety sold in stores. Families here do get together for Christmas and New Year dinner but it’s not a ‘come see our tree’ type thing. Maribel says that in the past it was common for people to erect large nativity scenes in their homes. Neighborhood kids would know who had a nativity and would go to the house and sing Christmas carols. The owner of the house would give the kids candy and chocolate milk.

We put up a tree this year. It’s artificial but it looks okay. I doubt if you can buy a real tree in this desert. The ornaments are mostly recently purchased but there are some that are personalized, like my old military dog tags, two Moroccan coin spoons, a mini-ball from the Gettysburg battlefield and an original nail from President Andrew Jackson’s hermitage home. And an acorn from Wisconsin. Don’t ask why we hung those things on our tree…we don’t know.

I’ll tell you what…in an attempt to start a Christmas visit tradition here in Chiclayo we invite you to come see our tree! We’ve got panetòn, beer and wine, and I’ll try to make a drinkable Señor Sipàn cocktail. How does that sound? There is one stipulation though. If you do come, please don’t talk about us afterwards….unless it’s complimentary.

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