This is the story of my best Christmas.
I think it was my super senior year of university when we decided to go to Florida for Christmas. Since becoming “an adult,” Christmas stopped being a big deal for me. The magic of it got lost, I became more interested in the Jewish traditions of my family, and it turned into a time when I ended up not being sure where I was supposed to be. Sure, I liked the lights, the smells, the sitting in the house filled with happy people. I still do. I just haven’t seen a lot of that in the past few years. It’s the bittersweet melancholy of being a somewhat transient twenty-something. However, my final year at university was marked by a holiday of visiting my grandmother in Florida.
Del Ray Beach to be specific. It’s near Boca.
If you can’t tell already by her geographic location, this is my Jewish grandmother. She converted at some point for my grandfather, whose family is “Jews all the way back,” to quote my aunt. I consider myself to be Jewish. It’s an ethic identity I have adopted even though my parents hardly ever bring it up. Celebrating Christmas with my savie (our butchered version of “savta,” as best I can tell) seemed a little strange to me, but it was an excuse to get my mom’s sisters (and associated children) together.
We were staying at my aunt’s house. B, sister one of four, bought the house with her husband. It’s a slightly strange smelling sprawl of tile floors, white wicker furniture, and glass. It -feels- like Florida, with it’s collection of classy family heirlooms and that kind of furniture “real people” from the North East don’t seem to have in their homes. The house, a place with three bedrooms that can arguably sleep at least seven “comfortably” and “not on the floor,” has afforded us the opportunity to visit Savie in a manner that is not unaffordable.
Plus, the residential community has a pool and a hot tub.
We were among the first to arrive on that trip. We all came separately. My brother and my father flew out from Philadelphia–Dad had been doing some work there, I think. Mom came up from Arizona. I came down from Pgh. Mom wasn’t there yet, but Dad, my brother, and I had landed at the airport, and gotten ourselves to the house. We were hungry. It was Christmas day.
In a house devoid of food, on a day with closed grocery stores, we did what any sensible set of people would do: we found a Chinese restaurant.
On the way back, walking, we passed the grocery store. They had, in front, a collection of pungent, drying Christmas trees. The ones that didn’t sell. We stopped and looked at them. As a kid, we had a Christmas tree. It was a small artificial one. One year, we had an even smaller real one, in a pot with dirt in it. By January, we transferred the pot outside. I wasn’t familiar with these “real” Christmas trees.
“Your mom would really like a tree,” Dad said. We talked about it for a minute, looking at the collection of trees, browning, drying, shedding needles like clothes in the Florida heat.
Dad picked a tree and then he and I picked it up. He carried it in his arm and I rested it on my shoulder. The needles cloyed against my skin and the smell cloyed against my nose.
Christmas trees have a smell I was never really familiar with outside of its artificial, chemical form that is connected to candles, cleaning solutions, and car air fresheners. Carrying that tree across the parking lot, large, divided road, and housing development gave me an opportunity to become intimately familiar with it.
Dad found a bucket and filled it with water. We found some rocks to help prop the tree up in the bucket. We set it in the connected living room-dining room and swept up the Hansel and Gretel trail of pine needles.
As people showed up, we put little things on the tree to decorate it. They found presents to put under it. Dad diligently made sure there was enough water and the tree began to look less like it was dead and more like it was dying. We ate our meals at the table next to this tree and looked at it.
We brought Savie over one night and exchanged presents. We lit some candles and prayed, even though Hannukah was over. We took things from under the tree and passed them around the room.
Being a foolish child, I fled early to spend New Years with friends in Chicago, bitterly cold and full of people I no longer talk to. T was there, with me, and I think about her and lament how much I now miss her with the same sort of useless wistfulness I wish I had spent those few extra days with my family. My father disposed of the tree we had stolen before he left.
For less than a week, that stolen tree–a tree that represented, as I understood it, everything Christmas isn’t about–made my mom smile. My dad always says, when it comes to gift giving occasions, that he wants us to take care of ourselves and succeed. That this is what makes him happy. I think it’s true, I think it is what he wants. But sometimes, people give us things that we didn’t know would make us happy, things we didn’t consider. While he never asked my mom to let him make her happy for the winter holidays, I think she gave it to him anyway that year. I think that the fact he provided something for his family, something none of them thought about wanting, he got right back something he hadn’t thought about wanting.