Monday, December 25, 2006

The tree you really are

Last week, I spent $25 on a used CD: a children's Christmas album by Nat King Cole, one I'd worn out in both vinyl and cassette form over the past 34 years. You can't go too wrong with Nat; "The Christmas Song" is a musty old roasted chestnut indeed, but that butter-rum voice of his just pours into every fissure in your soul. It heals what ails you. This particular record has been rereleased multiple times, even recently...but the latest CD has a slightly altered track listing; hence, my costly acquisition from Eric in Texas, who surely has no idea how deeply he's improved my Christmas this year. Brace yourselves, everybody--this will be both long and sentimental.

In December 1972, I turned three years old. My parents and I were living with my maternal grandparents, waiting on the completion of our split-level ranch in the suburbs; Sis was still a seven-months bun in the oven. For my birthday, my great aunt Nannie, Grandma's sister, gave me a record, on vinyl, Nat King Cole's "Christmas is for Children." I can still see the album cover perfectly in my mind's eye: late-60s graphics, broad vertical stripes of red and green. In each stripe was a photo illustration of a little kid opening (or staring with bewilderment at) a glittery wrapped present. All of those pictured kids are comfortably in their 40s, if not 50s, today.

The most current version of the album is missing "Buon Natale," the loopy Eye-talian verve of which is sorely needed, I think. Because the core of "Christmas is for Children"? Is a first-class tearjerker of the highest order. For example: "The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot," the protagonist of which looks enviously on at other little fellows' holiday bounty, and then goes home "to last year's broken toys." "I'm so sorry for that laddie...he hasn't got a DAAAAAADDYYY," Nat sings. Apparently this was a big hit during World War II. As a kid in the divorce-a-riffic 70s, a few years later, it meant something different to me...but that's another story. No, the weeper I'm going to talk about here is "The Little Christmas Tree." Penned by Mickey Rooney (!), as I was dumbfounded to learn from the newest liner notes.

Little Christmas Tree
No one to buy you, give yourself to me
You're worth your weight in precious gold, you see
My little Christmas tree

Promise you will be
Nobody else's little Christmas tree
I'll make you sparkle, just you wait and see
My little Christmas tree

I'll put some tinsel in your hair
And you'll find that there's a strange new change
That you have never seen
I'll bring my boy a toy
He'll jump for joy
To see his bright new queen

With me you will go far
I'll show Saint Nick the tree you really are
And there'll be peace on Earth when Daddy lights your star
My little Christmas tree

You're big enough for three
My little Christmas tree
I can only guess, now, at why this song completely devastated me, at three. I think it's partly that reality, when you're that little, is not made up of points on a spectrum, but exists as a level plane. Santa, God, your parents, your pets, Mickey Mouse, stuffed animals, the t.v. clown who hosts the morning cartoons, Sunny Jim smiling on the peanut-butter jar--all are equally valid and sentient beings, with needs and longings as simple and straightforward as your own. Hell, I'd probably just seen Charlie Brown's limp, needle-dropping tree for the first time, too. For whatever reason, I was utterly convinced--and entirely destroyed--by this song. Somewhere out there was a tiny tree, unloved and forgotten on the salesman's one to take it home, decorate it, wrap its base lovingly in an old flannel sheet to keep its toes warm. I was inconsolable; I cried, even as I begged the adults to play the song over and over, lift the needle and reset the little tree tragedy time and again. I went to bed in tears, cried myself to sleep.

And my Grammy listened to me. If I know her at all, I am sure that she first turned on Nannie--why would you buy such a horrible album for a little child!--because she and her sister lovingly, tirelessly bickered every single solitary day of their adult lives, over the trivial and the extremely trivial. But after she finished chewing out Nan, Grammy went to my father. She stuffed a handful of bills into his pocket and told him, "Go out and find the tiniest tree you can buy. Don't come back without it." She was five feet tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds with her wig on, but Dad knew what side his bread was buttered on; he went.

Why did Grammy listen to me, after all? I was three years old, three days before Christmas; I'd had one rough night, but in the morning surely I could be distracted by toys, her clip-on earrings, a frozen waffle. From my friends with kids, I know that parenting toddlers is largely a long daily litany of tiny peace-keeping fibs and distractions: oh, the battery must have run out! oh, Barney isn't on today! sorry, sweetie, but there IS no more candy! But she saw something in my grief, that night, that resonated with her. As an adult, I can look at the story now and see Grammy's own thread running through it. When she was three years old, she lost her mother to breast cancer. December 25, 1925. Merry Christmas.

So she thrust money at my dad. I don't know where he went--a florist? a nursery? Maybe the drugstore, because I saw a few Little Christmas Trees at the Walgreen's last week, exactly like the one he procured: a tiny dwarf evergreen, not 12 inches high, a live tree in a colored-foil-wrapped pot.

And that's what I remember, the confusing Christmas-light haze of being roused from bed and carried to the kitchen. My father sat me on the grey Formica-topped kitchen table next to the tree, and my Grammy said "Look! Look what your daddy found! It's the tree. It's the Little Christmas Tree! Your daddy saved it and he brought it home!"

And I BELIEVED. I sat on that table in complete awe and I BELIEVED with all my heart, that my father had saved that tree, that a genuine Christmas miracle had occurred. Grammy came up with a handful of ornaments the size of gumballs, a garland that might have been one of her own beaded necklaces; we decorated that dinky little tree and stood it on the bookshelf, and for days I stood near it and whispered to it and stroked its bright-green blunt needles like it was a pet. Surprisingly or not, it thrived. It's planted in front of the house I grew up in. It's about the size of a Volkswagen Bug, 34 years later--too big really to dig up under cover of darkness, though there have been tipsy nights since we sold the old homestead when I have thought about it.

I got an embarrassment of riches from Santa in 1972, and all the years afterward--toys I remember playing with, some toys I loved. In between I've had magnificent Christmases, and kind of crummy ones, and at least one where Santa brought everyone the stomach flu and we all spent the hour of Jesus's birth fighting over prime bathroom real estate. But nothing has stayed with me quite like waking up to that little tree; nothing has matched the absolute wonder and joy of that instant, a true Christmas miracle in my eyes, and that rooted my love of the holidays right into the core of my soul. It's the first Christmas I remember, and on some level it remains the very best.

Happy Holidays, everyone who's reading; I hope the closing of the year and the birth of a new one bring you as much astonishing happiness and complete wonder as they bring me. Then, and still.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy (insert word of choice here) to you too.