On Christmas eve I threw out the topic (to myself) “Christmas Morning”, 20 minutes, go….
When I was young Christmas morning always began in front of a heavy set of wooden doors. A checkerboard of small 8 x 8 windows that separated the living room from the hallway that would always be closed. Emerging from their wall pockets creating a barrier that was only seen once per year – and always in the early hours of Christmas morning.
The location in the living room of the artificial Christmas tree varied over the years. Weeks earlier its pre-sized color-coded twisted wire limbs were sorted then carefully inserted into the green painted post. It is most vividly remembered just to the left as you enter from the hallway, across from the baby grand piano.
The style of the decorations would change, evolving in later years to birds and bows; but I remember most fondly the large blue silver orbs and the sheen of metal tinsel draped across the boughs. It was the days before mini-lights, the larger green bulbs nestled in the wiry needles glowed brightly.
In the days leading up to the 25th, the collection of gifts beneath the trees bouncing lower branches would expand, a rising tide of brightly colored paper and ribbon. Then somehow on Christmas morning the collection was even larger than thought possible.
I was usually the last to wake, prodded by the middle brother who would have already completed the first reconnaissance. Together, the three boys would then slip through the doors to confirm Santa’s presence by finding at the far end of the room engorged Christmas stockings lying in a tidy row. These bulging felt sacks lay across the parallel inlay of the hardwood floors, tiny packages spilling onto the tile hearth that fronted the fireplace.
Extending awkwardly from stretched cuffs of faded polo brand pjs, little fingers would cradle and fumble the collection of packages being transported up the stairs and across upper hallway to the broad expanse of bed in my parent’s gray and white bedroom. Sitting amidst the strange bumps of the dual controlled heating blanket we would tear into the first gifts of the morning.
The glass doors would normally again be pulled shut. The old lead pane glass, rippling the view of the shimmering cellophane and tissue. Any intelligence on what might be found under the tree was the specialty of the middle brother. His intensity on Christmas morning was always fueled by the overnight additions. More items to be catalogued and much new speculation on what would be revealed. The eldest would watch with curiosity, as interested in his younger brothers angst as to the rewards of the day ahead.
Upstairs soft footsteps, the smell of ‘white shoulder’ perfume and pipe tobacco as visiting Grandparents, painfully slow, seemingly purposefully so, get ready for the day. The eldests bedroom, converted to their apartment now steeped with the same smells and stale warm air.
I can’t remember where the eldest slept on those annual visits. I just remember how the back corner bedroom became an open house but altogether different during the grandparent’s visits. The rest of the year it was a private space, the one room of our family home that I can’t clearly picture in the minds eye. I don’t ever remember being scolded or told to stay out, the room was just out of reach. A vague memory of birds on a window ledge, a very different view of the sprawling cherry tree that dominated the back yard and like most of the other rooms, the exposed ribs of the iron radiator, thick with many layers of paint.
In the days leading up to my grandparent’s arrival, I was always fascinated by the mysterious tradition of bleeding the air from the radiators. I would follow my father as he took a white plastic cap from an aerosol container and walked from room to room. There was always a hiss, its pitch varying as my father rested his fingers against the now loose wooden lozenge shaped dial that controlled the valve. The sputter and spitting would signal the end and the flow cut off. The cup splattered with a milky gray solution. Water that pumped endlessly through the house. The air released would bring new water and heat back to this room.
On Christmas morning, like any other day, the grandparents were not to be rushed. In that agonizing hour my brothers and I always wondered why she had to bathe instead of the expediency of a shower.
At last we would assemble in a big circle, my father would sit cross-legged and look to us boys to deliver the gift to their recipients. As ‘helpers’ we would watch the piles grow. Inevitability as one person’s pile lacked height or depth, the reminder would be pledged, ‘that good things come in small packages’. As the tree is emptied, a few remaining gifts for family members that would visit later in the day would be tucked to the back – as a finale, my father would demonstrate his ability to rise from cross legged position to standing with seemingly little effort. He would then slip away to refresh egg-nog with fresh ground nutmeg and at last the tearing of paper would begin.
By mid morning it would all be over. The piles were reorganized, nearby hastily scribbled lists of uncles and aunts and the items received. Those toys without too many pieces or ‘some assembly required’ playfully sampled.
With further waves of family to arrive, we seldom ventured out and had little contact with our friends in the neighborhood. Looking out the window, sometimes onto a snowy landscape, but normally a whiteness of a cold, overcast Vancouver day. Families could be seen out walking, new bicycles, wagons, and toys proudly paraded down the sidewalk.
The afternoon would move slowly in the wake of such an exciting morning.