Growing up, we didn’t trim the Christmas tree until we lit the pink candle.
We didn’t call it “Gaudete Sunday,” because we could never remember whether it was Gaudete or Letare. We called it ‘the pink candle.” Nobody was allowed to sing Christmas songs, bake Christmas treats, decorate for Christmas, watch Christmas videos or read Christmas books until the Saturday before “the pink candle.” This was the inviolable law in our household. Assembling the borrowed pagan symbol on that day made us more pious than heathens who put up the Christmas tree for Thanksgiving, but shamefully less pious than hardcore Catholics who waited until Christmas eve.
My siblings and I were reluctant to be pious.We protested waiting until the Pink Candle, just as we protested the abolition of Halloween. We wanted to be like the heathen families in our neighborhood, who decorated whenever they liked and celebrated just as they pleased. We showed our impiety in any way we could manage. Once, my brothers who couldn’t spell wrote “Happy Crismas” in crayon on printer paper and taped it to the back door window where my father would see it coming home from work– on the tenth of December. Once they took their school scissors and cut several raggedy branches off of the cedar bushes that hid our porch from the street, then stuffed them in a flower pot in the middle of the living room and hung Christmas ornaments on them– the first week of December. We fought and protested until the Saturday before the Pink Candle, when we were finally allowed to put up the tree.
Then, the berserker raid began.
My mother brought the tree up from the basement in its gigantic Rubbermaid coffin. The second of my three younger brothers crawled into the Rubbermaid and tried to seal himself in, to see what would happen. We all squabbled violently over where the tree should go– I wanted it in front of the window, but my younger brother next in age insisted that it should go in the middle of the doorway “so that we can join hands and dance around it.” I pointed out that we couldn’t anyway with the power cord for the lights on the floor and that he was stupid. The fight went on for quite some time.
Next, we squabbled about who should do the work of assembling the tree, unbending all the branches and de-tangling the lights. This was a far more frenzied skirmish than the battle of where to put the tree. We argued with ever-increasing vehemence that anyone who didn’t pull his own weight in these tasks should be banned from the fun of putting on ornaments. This usually ended with my little sister, who disliked untangling branches, going into hysterics. My father grumbled that he hated Christmas and my mother scolded him for hating Our Lord’s birthday. Moments later, my mother threatened to cancel Christmas if we didn’t stop squabbling. My father angrily kicked the Rubbermaid, only to be startled by my brother’s muffled “ouch.” My parents stormed from the room, grumbling that it was up to us.
We covered the tree in ornaments and garlands. There were always a few broken bulbs at the bottom of the box, with no loop to place a hook on. My brothers insisted that the tree would not be ornate enough without them; they stuffed them sideways on the end of a branch. Then it was my turn to go into hysterics, because one of my brothers took my jewelry box and hung my necklaces from the tree. They stole my sister’s jewelry as well. Like hypo-manic Jackdaws, they looted every room in the house for small shiny objects that could be hung from a tree branch.
We put the angel on the top last of all. We had to have an angel on top of the tree or it would be a Heathen Christmas tree, and we were pious.
Then it was time to decorate outside the house. Here, we were out for blood.
Our neighbors across the street were a family about whom we knew nothing, except that they had several children and went to the Catholic school nearby when we were in our paranoid homeschooling phase– I’ll call them the Wisemans. We never spoke with the Wisemans. Since they seemed well-to-do and didn’t homeschool, we presumed that they were heathens– maybe even democrats. Every year, starting just after Thanksgiving, the Wisemans decorated the outside of their house in picture-perfect white icicle lights. Every year, we deeply envied the Wisemans. Every year, we were determined to outdo them with a spectacular Christmas display.
“We’re going to beat the Wisemans,” my siblings and I muttered as we clamored into our coats and boots.
“This is the year. We’re going to beat them,” we swore as we dragged the box of outdoor lights to the porch.
At this point, we realized that we’d neglected to buy a ladder again. We never had a ladder. Every year we did without; every year we resolved to buy a ladder for next time. Every year, after the lights were taken down, we forgot about the ladder again.
This didn’t stop us. We were determined to put the Wisemans to shame.
We stood on the porch railing, hanging lights. We festooned the cedar bushes with lights, covering up the spots my brothers had cut off to make a protest Christmas tree. We hung up the plastic angel and reindeer that were made of lights, and tied them so they wouldn’t blow in the wind. Then it was time to decorate the Dogwood tree. The oldest of my younger brothers, the only one of us not afraid of heights, climbed to the top. I coiled a strand of lights into a ball and threw it at him; he caught it, and threw it back down. I threw it up to him again, and so on until the strand was entangled all around the tree.
The results were unconventional. One year, we somehow managed to make the tree look like a giant multi-colored bunch of bananas. Another year, our next door neighbor invited us upstairs to her bedroom so we could look out the window and see that, at just that angle, the lights on the tree looked like a stick figure man falling over.
We never did beat the Wisemans.
Still, my mother never once made good on her threat to cancel Christmas.
What all this had to do with the Lord’s birthday, I have no idea, but at least we didn’t look like heathens.
(image via Pixabay)