Monday, December 16, 2019


When I was a boy, Christmas was uglier. I don't mean to say some of it isn't ugly now. Lord knows ugly never goes entirely out of style. But it's an option now; just one way to go among many: a majestic scotch pine with tastefully arranged, unpainted wooden toy miniatures from Norway and twinkling white lights, or a vintage steel tree with Hello Kitty bulbs and a slow strobing color-wheel. 'Cause ugly can be ironic now, right? Well, back in the day, ugly just happened, all over the place, and we liked it.

Remember plastic yard-Santas lit spookily from within by a single, naked lightbulb? Pressed plastic Christmas door decorations made from colored chips that up-close made Frosty look poxy? Primitive felt hangings, long as a hand-knit scarf, that wished us all a "Merr_ Christmas" with a missing "y"? Wax reindeer with repaired necks, and slightly melted sleighs? Cotton-batting snow-scenes gray with coal-smoke, and creepy eyeless angels with open screaming mouths, and the disembodied heads of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, with burnt-out red lightbulb noses, and everywhere tat and and faded tinsel, threadbare stockings and inedible, garishly striped candy, and Nativity scenes with a one-armed baby Jesus and or a one-horned cow with wide, staring eyes...

It all smelled of mothballs and attic-damp, sizzling wires, recurrent penury, and making do.

It wasn't, among other things, nice, because it wasn't any of it new. It was all of it ugly and wonderfully, magically reiterative, and now I must say, much missed.

When and where I was a child, there was a way to such things. Nothing then ever seemed to go entirely away. Boxes rose out of the basement way once a year and what was in them what what there was to be had. Grandmothers folded wrapping-paper like it was printed money and kept closets full of the stuff, plus unknotted ribbons, and crushed bows. They'd have saved the scotch-tape for reuse, if there'd been a way to unstick it and roll it back up. That was what you did, then, or so it seemed at least to me, as I knew no better.

There was a way to things, all things and no one seemed to question any of it, for good or bad, which would prove, later on, a problem.

For instance, there were rules then about to whom one might or ought to give what come Christmas. Not family, you understand. Family saw to themselves. You got what you wanted or didn't, what you needed or wished for, asked for, or begged. But, no. This was to do with the rest: neighbors and acquaintance, coworkers, school teachers and mailmen, the paperboy, your mother's beautician or your father's barber, the pastor's wife, receptionists, bank-clerks, the building "super", the ladies at the dry-cleaners. I suspect some of this survives somewhere still, though I don't know that to be the case. Times change. The old way of things dies. Customs cease to be. We're not talking ancient traditions here, or the faith of our fathers. No one's the wiser for not I suspect, and we move on.

School teachers, it goes almost without saying, were all ladies then. They might get an apple -- yes, that actually happened -- or fudge, but they were just as likely to receive face-powder from the Five and Dime, or a clam-shell compact, or jewelry so dazzlingly hideous that only a child could think it beautiful. Invariably a brooch -- pronounced "brewch"-- often of a seasonal theme, and worn proudly, at least once on sweater or dress, for all the world to see.

Cash was only appropriate, in a sealed envelope, for the mail carrier or the newspaper boy, or as a seasonably generous tip when one paid the bill at the barbers or a favorite diner. (Beauticians gave out rain-hats, folded like origami into impossibly small purses. Banks gave out rubber change-purses with an invisible slit that opened when squeezed, and a bath-tub chain on one end, or calendars, as did mechanics, insurance companies, and weirdly, funeral homes. And gas-stations and car-dealerships were the primary source of Christmas records. I don't know why, they just were.)

I could go on and I will, but not with this.

Mostly I remember plates, containers and plates.

We ate early, Christmas day. People did. Depending on the day when Christmas fell, people probably had to get up for work the day after. That was always the plan, anyway. There might be snow on the road though, people traveling from as far away as Ohio (!) though for the most part no further than the next county if that. Some people went to church all morning. Some people stayed out too late the night before. In the end, we ate when whatever the mystic and changeable quorum was formed, just before the bird went dry or the kids became completely ungovernable and had to be released out of doors. Whenever the magic hour, it was after of which I am thinking.

I would imagine people who host a dinner still send people home with food. We don't do parties much anymore, throwing or going, but I should think that that is still true. You make a plate or have a plate made for you. Dishes are washed and returned when practical, but a plate is a different business.  A plate is the proof of having been. A plate is abundance, satiety refuted, a promise for the New Year.

And a plate, a container, a tin, these were the last duty of the old year, every year.

My mother drove whatever my father had yet to sell on; cars from the auction or obscure private lots, anything with wheels that could be made to go, fixed up, repaired and polished and sold on. So riding in her car, weather permitting, or in my Dad's truck if not, every Christmas Eve and or Christmas Day, 'round we went with the plates, containers, and tins.

The world then was full of widowers who lived on isolated farms, single, retired school teachers, relatives of the most remote connection, people in need of a call, which did not involve the telephone in this sense.

Up and down country roads, in and out of town, the plates went out into the world like a humble hosanna: if not dinner, then fudge -- three kinds -- and divinity, Rice-Krispies treats, and cookies baked, and "no-bake", and yes, there might well be pie.

And the job of the passenger, my part of the mission would be to balance these plates on my knees, or keep the pie straight on a sloping car-seat. No easy thing, I might add, on a ten-year-old's knee, or in a temperamental Chrysler without power-steering.

Always late. Always hurried, exhaustion thick as the ice on the road and sometimes on the inside of the windows.

And yet, every plate might require a visit. That was the reason to bring a kid, you see. Keep the car running, send the boy in proper boots but only a sweater up to the door. Clever that, strategic. Ring the bell or knock, give over the plate or the tin, effusive thanks or a grim nod, and then a wave from the driver and off again to the next.

In a perfect world.

The reality usually meant standing in cold hallways, or worse, sitting on scratchy horsehair-furniture,  little houses full medicinal smells and old dark rooms, drafty kitchens devoid of sound, or radios so old they still glowed, or televisions that were never shut off. I remember rented rooms where a meal was served on a TV-tray, old-folks' homes twilit even in broad day, the friend who lived in a camper, another in a house with tar-paper walls. I am just old enough to have wished a Merry Christmas to someone lit by a single kerosene lamp.

In all that was ugly then, garish and battered and broken-down, was there not something fine as well? Something not to do with good taste so much as utility and good intentions? A lesson in want, yes, worthy of Dickens, but also in a righteous disregard of new and useless things, in kindness extended without thought to even the unhappy, the garrulous, the grim, the isolated and the ugly, "to the least of these", if I remember my Matthew's Gospel.

My mother now is herself too old to stir fudge, or drive a Chrysler through the snow. Her Christmas dinner comes now across the yard from my brother's house. All those she might have visited, visit her now only in dreams.

When and where I was a child, there was a way to such things.  There may be yet.

Make a plate if you can. Doesn't matter if it's paper, or the container used to be full of Cool Whip, or the tin has a hideous, one-eyed reindeer from being washed too many times. Doesn't matter even what's on the plate, though be honest, we all hope it tastes good. That's the only taste that matters, frankly. So make a plate or take one, but remember --

Somebody's going to need to have that back.

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