One of the early lessons my brother and I learned growing up was this: never mess with Mom on Christmas Eve.
The roots of the lesson always started a few weeks earlier, when we’d head off to a tree stand run by a nearby Methodist church and buy the biggest, freshest tree we could find. My father would huff and puff and mutter many bad words as he’d wrestle the tree onto the car, off the car, into the house, and into the big tree stand.
Then he’d mutter more bad words as my mother would forbid him to put it in the living room, and made him put it on the side porch.
She wasn’t ready to decorate, she’d explain sharply.
The tree would sit on the side porch for several weeks, undecorated.
Finally on Christmas Eve, Mom would permit the tree to enter the living room, but only after a major reorganization of the furniture to create a proper space (usually accompanied by more bad words from my father).
Then out would come box after box of exquisite ornaments, collected from family and during my parents’ travels in Europe while my father was in the Foreign Service.
Sometime after dinner, my father would retreat to his chair on the back porch, where he could smoke, drink coffee and read weighty history books unmolested by the Christmas spirit.
My mother, meanwhile, would get progressively more and more tense through the afternoon and evening, as the enormity of the task before her sank in.
Sometime around 7 p.m. or so, she’d begin, pulling out and hanging the delicate treasures while Christmas music played. Sometimes my brother and I would try to help, but somehow or another, we never got the ornaments placed just so and my mother’s frustration would grow.
Quickly it became her turn to mutter bad words.
My brother and I would bid a hasty retreat to our rooms, where we could hear her banging and muttering well into the night. It usually went on into the wee hours of the morning.
The result was always utterly magical and spectacular – I have rarely seen a tree as splendidly outfitted as the ones my mother would prepare. But it was a process that you interrupted at your own peril.
I don’t know why she always waited until the last minute for such a monumental job. It wasn’t family tradition, clearly – her own mother always got Christmas decorations out early, and they were much less elaborate than my mother’s creations.
Rather I think it was a question of time management. My mother was congenitally late to everything, from school to medical appointments to family gatherings, and, apparently, to Christmas decorations. Also, although she was intelligent, she was a starkly linear thinker – one task had to be completed (or abandoned) before another could begin. She was largely incapable of what we now call multi-tasking.
December, I suspect, was agony for her, because she knew how many other things she had to finish (or abandon) before she could tackle the tree. That tension started when the huge tree took up residence on the side porch and built to the breaking point around 9 or 10 p.m. on Dec. 24.
She was always supremely satisfied with the tree afterward and by the morning of Dec. 25, she was back to her usual placid, kindly, motherly temperament.
But the end result was that she was unwilling to dismantle the tree after the festivities ended. Rarely did the tree come down until sometime around the end of March. For a full quarter of the year, our living room was splendidly tricked out for Christmas.
In my own life, the Christmas pendulum has swung the other direction. Left to myself, I’d probably hardly decorate at all, but since my wife is an enthusiastic lover of holidays, we get a tree (usually two – one for the living room and one for the kids’ room) and festoon the house with decorations.
We always get it done, however, weeks in advance, so by Christmas Eve, the stressful bad word phase has safely passed and we can just enjoy the tree.
And at my insistence, the tree comes down as soon as possible afterward – usually sometime around New Year’s Day, and the activity is always carried out with great speed and energy.
In my house, everybody has learned the lesson that, when it comes to post-Christmas cleanup, nobody messes with Dad.