I baked cookies the weekend before Christmas, hoping to jump-start my inner holiday clock which hadn’t yet clicked into ho-ho-ho mode, even though the calendar said differently. It had always worked before and I had no reason to believe that my long history of holiday baking would let me down after all these years. It began in the 1950s, with my mother’s penchant for baking and as she often remarked: “Just because God gave me three sons, doesn’t mean I’m stuck in this kitchen all by myself”. When she was forced to give up her first career as a cosmetologist shortly after my birth, she had become, for the first time in fourteen years of marriage, a homemaker, but of course in those days the moniker was housewife. Our house was so tiny, four rooms and one very small bath, that by 10:00 a.m. every day it was immaculate with sparkling windows and at least a load of laundry hanging on the line to dry. So she found herself with time on her hands and since she had always enjoyed cooking, she bought a Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book and her self-taught baking curriculum was born. She became an excellent baker and teacher. By the time I was about four or five years old, she began a tradition which could be called a Christmas Cookie Marathon.
The endurance test started the first weekend after Thanksgiving and it ended on the last weekend before Christmas. She would bake one or two types of cookies each week, depending on the level of difficulty of the recipe and time involved in making them. Each recipe would be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled and after dozens of cookies were finished, they would be carefully packed and stored in the attic in large tin drums to be consumed by family and friends during the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. It is one of the few memories I have of being together with my older brother where we actually enjoyed each other. My mother was totally in charge, but she delegated tasks to each of us. When I was a really little guy I did easy things, like sifting flour, or greasing cookie sheets, or setting the timer. The most fun was decorating the cookies with colored sugar or various sprinkles and everybody did this, even my dad joined in some years. We traditionally baked: Toll House, Snickerdoodles, Brownies, press cookies, gingerbread men, snowballs and my very favorite – rolled cookies. The rolled cookies were the ones we would cut out with the Christmas cookie cutters – Santa faces, Christmas trees, stockings and stars. These were elaborately ornamented by all of us, a tour-de-force in sugar and frosting and we all tried to out-do each other, including our mother. We could be a very competitive bunch. And of course, we were able to eat any of our “mistakes” or crumbled attempts on the spot. This tradition continued long after my older brother married and moved out of the house and my younger brother took over my place as flour-sifter/cookie-sheet greaser.
My dad died the summer of 1990, and although their marriage was quite the rocky one, my mother had stuck by him through fifty-four volatile years of marriage. Now for the first time in her adult life she had found herself alone. I remember a phone conversation we had about two months after he was gone and I asked her “So how are you really doing now?” to which she replied without missing a beat “Oh, it’s soooo lonely. There’s no one to fight with” (and she’d said it sincerely). As the holidays were approaching, she was getting sadder, not better. I never expected this reaction from her, because she was such an independent woman and so often during her life she was held back because my father didn’t want her doing some things she would have loved to be able to do. She said she dreaded sitting around the Thanksgiving table with her sister and brother and their families by herself. I suggested she come out to Massachusetts and spend Thanksgiving with my then partner Alejandro and myself. She leapt at the chance and we took her to a lovely, two-hundred-year-old inn for a hearth-side turkey dinner. She adored it, but commented several times during the meal that she felt like a whore because only whores ate Thanksgiving dinner in restaurants. Each time she said the word, she grinned a little more.
So she went back to Ohio, and now whenever we spoke on the phone her conversations turned to dreading Christmas and wondering how she could make it to New Year’s without my father. I suggested finding a bereavement support group and she did attend a few sessions with her sister. But it was not getting better, and her phone calls were coming closer together and the topic was still the same and her demeanor even grimmer. Finally, out of desperation, I tried another tactic. Offhandedly with a chuckle and a lilt in my voice I joked “Mom, maybe you should think back to all those Christmases that Dad ruined by screaming and fighting over the Christmas tree”. There was a long pause as I awaited her reaction. It came like a volley. “Well, I’m sorry that your childhood Christmases were ruined” and she hung up with a bang.
But it was true. Just as I remember looking back on those fun hours in the kitchen making the holiday goodies, I remember the angst and torture that came with just the mention of the words Christmas tree. My parents certainly never needed a real reason to have an argument. They could start a rip-snorter over the most insignificant thing you might imagine, like the thermostat on the wall, for instance. I once came home from New York on a visit and found that they hadn’t spoken to each other for three days prior, because each insisted that neither of them had touched the bloody temperature gauge and yet it was set at 70 instead of 68 degrees (the universally acceptable winter setting?). So one can see how a relationship as explosive as theirs would certainly crumble under the pressure of dealing with the burden of a Christmas tree. And it often times began at home just discussing the fact that it was nearing time to go out and get a tree. Dad would say it was way too early to go looking and my mother would insist that if they waited even an hour longer that all the good ones would be gone. They would scream and curse and name call and insult the hell out of each other until one of them would end up grumbling “then fine, we just won’t have a tree this year”.
Once the two decided that it was the appropriate time, we all of us climbed into the car and round two began – where to buy the tree. In the 50s and 60s there were not a lot of places to buy trees in our area of Cleveland, yet it seems the folks could never remember where we got the tree the year before. I always remembered, but they didn’t trust each other, so why would they even consider trusting a kid? We would hardly be down our street before the screaming began about which direction to drive in. If Mom persisted in going to the tree seller she thought we had gone to the year before, my father would threaten “Stop telling me where to drive or I’ll turn this goddamn car around right now and you won’t have your tree”. It’s not my tree”, she would counter, “it’s ours”. I would sit in the back seat cowering, just wishing the ordeal would be over rather than just beginning. There were even years when she called his bluff and he did turn around to go home but usually my brother or I started crying, which caused Dad to scream at us and focus his anger at his sons instead of his wife, the shrew. We never did suffer a Christmas without a tree, though.
Invariably we headed to the closest place near my elementary school which had the nicest selection. We started running down the rows of cut trees propped up on stakes, all of us searching for the perfect tree. Of course my mother always fell in love with the twelve footers , which was an impossibility in our tiny bungalow. My father typically chose the shortest, bushiest shrub-like arbor because his main concern was fitting “the goddamn thing” into his car trunk. He would never be so provocative or cavalier to allow even one inch to stick out of the trunk, and was far too lazy to expend the energy tying the thing to his roof. “It might scratch the paint” was his excuse against the extra work. The one and only thing they did agree on was that it had to be a Scotch Pine, so every year it was our tree of choice. Short needle, long needle, bushy or spindly, my brother and I just wanted a tree to take home to decorate and our parents to stop fighting and shut the hell up. They had no shame; they’d even fight in front of the tree man. They weren’t the least bit bothered by each other’s behavior but I could have died right then and there. I bore their shame for them.
Round three was bringing the tree into the living room, setting it up and putting on the lights. This was something that only Dad could do, no matter how old we sons were. It was one of his few expressions of machismo, but of course it came with its price. We were expected to help him if he struggled while at the same time staying out of his way. So if the tree began to lean dangerously close to falling, unless he called for help we were not to attempt assisting. And when he did ask for our aid we were, of course, called useless because it was our fault that whatever had happened, happened. He shouted and swore and goddamned his way through the job and once it was up in its stand and encircled in lights he parked his ass in his recliner and watched us hanging the years of accumulated ornaments and the tinsel and candy canes. Intermittently supervising our work he would bellow instructions from his throne and critique our decorating with helpful comments like: “can’t you do anything right?”. Yet when people came to the house to visit during the holidays my father was the first to remark “isn’t our tree beautiful!”. We all wanted to wring his neck, leaving him dead right there in his chair.
Then, at the end of the joyous holiday season came the final round which was dismantling the dead pine and taking it out to the street to be carted away by the trash man. I won’t even bore you with that ordeal, but I think you can guess that those memories are not half as pleasant as those putting up the tree had been.
I still love Christmas trees, despite my parents’ damaged sense of holiday cheer. I’ll admit that taking them down is nothing but ugliness and hell and I channel most of my father’s rage to assist me in the task. But still, David and I go out to shop for a live tree every year. We’ve collected some beautiful ornaments in our fifteen years together and it’s a happy/sad time for us both, decorating and remembering Christmases past and family members and friends no longer with us to celebrate the season. It is a lot of work and it makes a bit of a mess, but for me, it really is the symbol of what Christmas is about.