By Claudia Costa-Jacobson
There were too many hard times when I was growing up, but Christmas was always wonderful. My Mom and Dad loved their children, spouses and grandchildren. At home, Mom was the CEO and Dad added humor.
Both were born after the depression to immigrant parents escaping Germany and Spain. Their parents knew struggle and hard work with little financial gain. Mom and Dad worked as hard or harder. Sadly, all the men in their families died young. Mom never knew her Dad. I did not have a Grandpa.
One of the best things Mom and Dad did was celebrate Christmas. It wasn’t simply a special day; it was more a time to savor, slow down and catch up with an eggnog and home-made cookie in your hands while your eyes rested on the tree. We watched Christmas specials together on TV and listened to Christmas music played on records. The feeling as well as the tree stayed through early January. Christmas time was amazingly deep in warmth, joy, laughter and love.
Dad was the alpha male, but he needed female supervision. If left on his own, after driving around New York City at night he would find a parking spot somewhere fairly near the tree lot, then purchase the most ragged, misshapen tree out of sympathy for it or the tree seller. Mom didn’t buy anything with sympathy. With her frugal, sturdy Germanic heritage and bulldog attitude, gained after years of shopping Macy’s sales, she knew exactly what she wanted. The tree needed to be perfect, full, even and too tall for any apartment we lived in, or even for our sunken living room with a high ceiling in our house on South Mountain in Gilboa. That gave my dad a chance to redeem himself for mistakes too numerous to count by cutting off part of the tree. But he never cut it evenly. I can’t remember if he brought a saw when we moved to Southern California. However, I remember a problem there when we had a huge tree lying across the floor of our small living room in our rented house, blocking access to the kitchen, the door to the yard, and scraping the glass screen of the TV while dripping pine pitch on the carpet.
The gifts were always wonderful. We opened them on Christmas Eve as my grandmother, Omi, had done in Berlin. Every edge of wrapping paper was folded and the tape was barely visible on every box my Mom wrapped. Just like Macy’s, all the clothing was covered in tissue paper with a double folded top.
Every gift came with a clue to its content, usually a silly rhyme. We all chimed in to help each other solve the puzzle. Gifts were given one at a time, so everyone watched as I opened mine. As children, we too made clues we wrote out, or we were asked to think of clues as we presented our little gifts. This process was slow. Mom taught us to savor our time and I am so glad that she did. There was no need to rush and there still isn’t. We lingered under our tree.
Regardless of where we lived the tree decorations were incredibly beautiful. It was heavily laden with the same colorful German glass ornaments. Tinsel dripped like icicles in the woods and each strand was re-used. Mom worked decorating from the top down and all the way around. Dad was a photographer and worked with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. He had an eye for beauty: photographing buildings, skylines and people. However, he couldn’t seem to touch glass without terrible things happening. Dad sat and watched or pretended not to watch. But he never touched an ornament, either when putting up or taking down the tree. Ornaments were not to be broken, and when the tree was taken down, they were wrapped and placed in old boxes. They were treasured and appeared year after year.
As a child and as an adult woman, looking at our Christmas tree made me feel secure and transported me to the middle of a sugar plum dream. Hope and love surrounded me. Surely I was blessed.
As a Mom, I recall my own daughter Michelle asleep upstairs while I sat in a very large plump old chair, in front of a simmering wood stove with only the sounds of the fire, the dogs and cats snoring and purring, knowing the horses were content, tucked into their stalls munching hay. I would stare at my tree lost in hope.
A good friend told me that she grew up wanting to believe all the barn animals could talk at midnight, Christmas, the hour of Christ’s birth. To honor this tradition we decorated the exterior of the stalls and added a handful of extra grain to each bucket. We would linger in the barn, watching steam rise from the horses’ big bodies and listen as they ate their hay, aware of how much warmer it was inside the barn than outside. I was hoping that night it was warm enough for all. I hope still it’s warm enough.
Then I would hustle my daughter and myself back inside, boots crunching snow and our breath fogging our glasses. We’d stop to look up at the glorious stars and “ooh and aah.” Once inside, I sent her to bed. I would sit quietly, deliberately near the tree … remembering.
To you and yours I wish hope, love, peace and quiet, lingering beauty. ~