Recalling my favorite 'Christmas Carole'
By Jennifer Zartman Romano
My grandparents named their firstborn "Carole" because she was born at Christmastime. It was the perfect name and perfect time of year for her to be born. My mom loved Christmas.
Christmas was always a very big deal for my mom. My memories of Christmas are warm and joyful, recalling a roaring fire in the stove, the smell of a fresh-cut tree, the scent of dough ornaments baking in the oven. Every corner of our turn of the century brick farmhouse had a tree or evergreen boughs. Over the years, she amassed a sizeable collection of Santa Clauses. Some were paper, some new, some ancient -- all struck her fancy in one way or another. I remember looking forward to the arrival of the jolly (and some more stately) old men each year. Warming my hands by the fire, I'd study them as they lined the massive brick enclosure my uncle Irwin from Scotland built around the stove.
The buildup to Christmas was made so magical. We decorated. She was a busy bee from late summer to Christmas Eve making things -- things she sold, things she gave away and things she decorated our house with...all for Christmas. An artist of many mediums, I know she made things other times of the year, but it was the Christmas regalia that stands out most in my memories.
I recall joyful trots through the rows of trees at the tree farm in search of the perfect tree to decorate. All of our decorations were stowed inside an ancient steamer trunk which though musty, smelled wonderfully Christmaslike. We had a varied collection of ornaments we made, she made or that someone had given us throughout our lives. It's amusing to think about how occasionally there would be times the lights in one area of the tree wouldn't work -- so we just put more ornaments in that spot! Speaking of lights, I remember the year she got her hands on a strand of lights that could flash at different present speeds. To her, this was maybe the greatest development on holiday decorating to come down the pipe in a long time. She displayed that strand on a grapevine tree she had my dad craft for her -- and I can still see the glee-filled smile on her face as she turned out all the lights in the living room and giggled as she set the lights in what appeared to be perfect sync with Pink Floyd and Metallica. It was pretty cool.
We watched all the Christmas shows. We got excited about school Christmas performances, which were for whatever reason the only time I felt comfortable having her go into my school. (She was really, really involved in all areas of our lives and I didn't want her talking to my teachers and finding out some nugget of information that might land me in trouble...so I "lost" paperwork about parent-teacher conferences and forgot all about open houses and the annual "Pizza Panic" school carnival. It was better that way.) I made an exception for the Christmas program every year and looked forward to that event where all parents and grandparents packed into the wooden bleachers of our school's little gym, shoulder to shoulder and probably overheated, gushing about their kids. I'm pretty sure we did the same songs and the same sort of show every year, but I'd scan the crowd looking for her and my equally enamored grandparents smiling and waiving approvingly. I recall the frenzied hair curling, dress pressing and shoe shining before the show...and the tired, crumple onto the couch while still wearing your best winter coat afterward.
Our gifts, often handmade by her, traded for or found secondhand, were always very thoughtful. You could just tell she never did the last minute shopping thing, but found things all year long that were just right for each recipient. There were some standout years, like the year I got cross country skis that were wrapped up like a giant bow and arrow (which I also would've enjoyed tremendously). Another great year was the year there seemed to be about a million teeny tiny gifts wrapped under the tree. The gifts, all tediously wrapped and then unwrapped in a fury by my sister and I, amounted to furniture, dishes, dolls and decor that filled the giant handmade dollhouse we received from my grandparents the previous year. None of these items were new and many were made by my mother, such as tiny clay food and a miniature quilt. We spent hours arranging in the dollhouse that Christmas Day. How had she...er...Santa done this?
Santa...actually the spirit of Christmas...was always very important to her. I remember at some point voicing my curiosity about the "realness" of Santa -- a notion met with disappointing eyes and a swift response. "If there is no Santa, there will be no gifts ever, ever again," she said, emoting a sense of shock, sadness sternness that set me in my place. I never questioned again and I don't today because in knowing more about my mother, I know that there is a lot about our Christmases that was magical and impossible and often beyond explanation. I mean Santa brought my sister and I a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas in 1983 when they were a scarce, riot inducing commodity! Other years, when our family struggled financially (which was most years), there were still piles of meaningful gifts under the tree. Things we wanted and needed were waiting for us unfailingly each Christmas morning.
Not only was it important that she made our Christmas perfect, she made merry for others too. One year, I remember her joining efforts with several friends to be sure another lifelong friend's children had a nice Christmas one year when they were having a tough year. I listened as she played Santa, making a half dozen phone calls to line up gifts for these children. That was the first awareness I'd ever had of someone doing something like that. I asked a lot of questions about when we would get to see this gift-giving happen, but she was very pointed that it all be a very quiet thing...that these gifts were from Santa and not some spectacle. I've taken that notion forward in life, preferring to be quiet in my philanthropy like she was.
As important as this holiday was to her, there were great traditions set in place regarding Christmas Day. My mom's family would load up their cars with more gifts than I've ever seen and drive an hour to our house in any weather. Mannheim Steamroller heralded their arrival about an hour after we finished opening our Santa gifts. The big kitchen table would be beautifully dressed with a Scottish lace tablecloth, with my mom's blue and white Pfaltzgraf dishes (even the serving pieces you never touched the rest of the year), and candles ensconced in greenery. Nearby, the kids table was similarly set -- just about as fancy. A big meal would be served -- a roast and mashed potatoes or maybe a lasagna -- followed by a brief pause. After that we'd find a spot encircling the room and take turns handing out gifts. Then, following age order, we'd take turns open each gift, slowly, one at a time and displaying it for all to see. What I loved (and still love about this) was that it gave the gift recipient and giver the chance to savor the experience, to truly appreciate the act of gift giving...and not relegate it to some frantic process. This took hours. Hours. All afternoon...and I know this because shortly after we'd finish, my dad's family would arrive for a much less traditional gathering with a more casual evening meal, different music and different vibe. A different celebration in contrast, but equally enjoyable. That would carry on until late, late, late with aunts, uncles and cousins and sometimes friends and extended family along.
My mom, however manic she seemed preparing the details in the morning, seemed to really enjoy these gatherings and hosting them in her home. She was very committed to the notion that we children should enjoy Christmas in our house and not have to travel on that day, but stay in our warm house playing with our new toys in our pajamas if we wanted to. I only wish I knew how to make that happen for my kids between the five or so Christmases we manage to squeeze in a 48 hour period each year. It feels overwhelming, frantic and not as peaceful as what I remember from childhood. They are good at rolling with whatever comes their way, though, and they don't seem to mind. They like the going and the excitement.
This year marks ten years since I celebrated Christmas with my mom. Her death, though it occurred in springtime, cast a pall over Christmas for me for many years. It wasn't...and isn't...the same. A bit of the magic left with her. I couldn't even look at the Santa collection the first year. Putting up the tree the first year seemed like a smack in the face of her memory. The lights, the joy, the traditions...all seemed like too much. Christmas, just days after her birthday, was a big reminder of what was missing. There was a giant, gaping hole in our family and our "Santa" and orchestrator of the behind the scenes magic was gone.
But...as surely as that snow falls making everything fresh and new, my perspective has changed. I now see the holiday through my children, and sparked by their spirituality, I'm inspired to celebrate differently. Not better or worse, just different. We have created new traditions that are powerful and important -- like Christmas Eve celebrations capped off with Mass at the family church in Fort Wayne, as their grandparents and great grandparents did. Making Christmas cookies and meatballs with their grandparents on certain days and enjoying an all-day Christmas celebration (not held on Christmas) is a different day. We as a family have embraced the arrival of Santa in Whitley County and work together on various aspects of the parade and, going forward, Santa's House. That has been big and healing for me, and I was very moved when it all unfolded this year. I'd like to think my mom would've been tickled, too, to see all the excitement for the approaching Christmas season. Years of perspective have given me the realization that I am now charged with the role of making magic for my kids -- which is why we drop everything to look at Christmas lights, wear faux mustaches while Christmas shopping, take care to wrap up a fruitcake for an unsuspecting family member each year, plan elaborate joke gifts, bundle up for sleigh rides, drink hot cocoa by the buckets and other completely ridiculous, utterly lovable and most importantly memorable Christmas shenanigans. Yes, shenanigans....because all of it isn't a Hallmark commercial. Decorating for Christmas varies each year. This year is a little more ski lodge-esque while most years are something I'd call "mid century madness" -- stuff that is nostalgic Christmas for a lot of people, though not really for me. We dialed it back a little this year because I didn't want the littlest elf in our house to irreparably damage my favorite Christmas treasures -- which I now store in an old trunk like mom always did.
One of my very, very favorite parts about this time of year is how many people tell me they still think of my mom -- as they hang the ornaments on their trees. There are so, so many trees in this county and beyond where a little spark of her Christmas spirit dwells. It means the world to me that the days between her birthday and Christmas I hear almost daily that she is still loved and still remembered so fondly. That's a very, very special gift.