Oh, Christmas Tree

This is my Christmas tree. It’s a 7 foot, artificial, pre-lit number that I’ve had for about three years. Growing up, we always had real trees. And while I miss them, I like the fact that I can put my tree up after Thanksgiving and it looks just as beautiful past the New Year. No saggy, dry branches or shedding needles. To get the smell of the tree, I buy a real wreath and hang it on the back of the front door. Voilà!

I’m a bit of a snob about Christmas trees, decorations and the like, so it wasn’t an easy decision to go with an artificial tree. I used to scoff at people with who had them. I used to say it was like having “a Bobble head Jesus in the manger”. It just wasn’t right. Now, I just make myself an eggnog, sit on the couch and revel in my excellent taste in ornaments.

Now, let’s talk about ornaments. I’m very picky. I know what I like and what I don’t like. I never liked the idea of having a tree-trimming party because I knew that I’d probably hate most of the ornaments that people brought me and even if I liked some of them, I knew I’d end up re-arranging them properly after everyone left. It’s much too stressful to smile at the tacky “Surfin’ Santa” ornament and exclaim, “I love it!” Then you have to put it up every year because you know that friend will look for it next Christmas. It’s much easier to buy your own ornaments.

You may be asking just what my ornament and decorating rules are. Excellent question. Thank you for playing along. Feel free to adopt these for yourself if you’re so inclined.

1. Stick with classic, old fashioned ornaments

For me, this is Victorian. Among my collection I have porcelain Santa faces, Tiny Tim holding a plum pudding, assorted angels and an antique bird.

There are none of the following on my tree: Disney figurines, folk art animals, cats on skateboards, Santa engaging in any un-Santa like behavior (i.e., surfing, riding a motorcycle, doing the hula, etc.)

2. Ornaments must rest securely and perfectly on a branch

This means that there is enough room below the ornament for it to hang as it was intended. No forcing an ornament into a space where it ends up resting on the branch below. That will not do. You must have a mix of long and short ornaments to make sure proper placement can be achieved.

3. Minimize the number of ornament sets

In essence, try to buy more individual ornaments instead of those boxes of identical green balls, red stars and silver bells. I admit to having some of these sets, but each year I cut down as I buy more individual ornaments. If you must use ornament sets, be sure to space them out around the tree and for goodness sake, don’t put two of the same set next to each other!

4. Don’t skimp on the back of the tree

Yes, I know it may face a wall or a window, but true Christmas tree connoisseurs will look at the back of your tree and judge it just as much as they’re judging the front of your tree. So be sure to decorate it just as seriously as the front. And don’t try hiding the ugly ornaments back there. We see them.

5. Take your time with decorating

This is where that artificial tree helps out. This year’s tree took me about three days to properly decorate. Part of the reason is because I’m getting older and I get exhausted and crankier much faster. But mainly it’s because I want to take care with each ornament and find the right spot for it. It’s not just for show that I do this. It’s because each ornament holds a memory for me.




When I hold this rocking horse, I remember when I bought it at Harrod’s when I was in England in 1990.






This is one of my few concessions to a non-traditional ornament. I made this bell out of a milk carton in kindergarten. It reminds me of my teacher, Mrs. Schmale and how sweet she was to me.








This crocheted Santa was made by an old German lady named Mrs. Mockel who lived across the street from me when I was a child. Her daughter and son-in-law owned the corner grocery store. It reminds me of all the great neighbors who helped shape me into the person I am today.

Perhaps the old-fashioned theme of my tree is about more than the types of ornaments I display. It’s about what those ornaments represent. They remind me of the past, whether that was my own past growing up in the 1960s and 1970s or a time when ancestors of mine decorated their trees with candles instead of lights and utilized whatever materials  were available or popular at the time.

So, if you’re celebrating Christmas and are starting to trim your tree, be sure to enjoy it and make the tree your own. What do you want it to express to the world? It doesn’t have to be like mine (although it would do my ego good). It just has to bring you joy when you look at it.

May your hooks be strong, your branches be firm and your memories be pleasant. I wish you the happiest of holidays, Surfin’ Santa or not.

Ho, Ho, Hum?

(Text inside reads, “Yeah, yeah. Merry Christmas…Whatever.”)

This Christmas card sums up my mood this year perfectly. And this isn’t how I usually feel. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I’d play Christmas music in July because I just couldn’t wait for December to arrive. This is why I’m puzzled about my lack of Christmas cheer this year. Oh, sure, the tree is decorated, my shopping and wrapping are done and I have the Christmas movies ready for the DVD player. But, something is missing. I’m not going to pull a “Bah, humbug!” on you, but the sentiments of “Santa Claws” above seem to be mine as well.

Let me say up front that I hate feeling this way about Christmas. I want to be excited and happy but so far, I’m not feeling it. I think a lot of it has to do with how challenging this year has been. As some of you know, my mother underwent major back surgery and had a couple of other minor procedures done. I hurt my back while taking care of her and then I was fired. 2011 has felt like a never-ending exercise in crisis management and I haven’t always handled the stress very well.

As a result, I haven’t been in the “merry-making mood”. Picture Jimmy Stewart in the first part of It’s a Wonderful Life (sans the suicide angle) and that’s how I’ve been feeling. I want to shake it off, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. Maybe the time has come for me to put It’s a Wonderful Life in the DVD player and really take it to heart. We all need to be reminded of the impact we have on the lives of others especially when we’re feeling like we don’t matter much at all.

So, with wishes for internal and external peace for myself and for all of you, I leave you with the scene that never ceases to make me cry every time I watch it. For some reason, when Harry says, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town”, I cry like a baby. Here’s to discovering just how truly “rich” we really are. May we all find peace and love this holiday season.

Yes, Sister Gabriel, There is a Santa Claus

This is me back in 4th grade in 1974. I can hear the giggles and see the pointing all the way across the blogosphere. God, that was a bad look for me. Although, the hair and sweater may have made me an excellent candidate for a spot with the Bay City Rollers. All I needed was a little tartan and a Scottish accent. What do you think?

It was before Christmas when this woman, Sister Gabriel, my 4th grade teacher, decided to drop a bombshell. No, she wasn’t retiring immediately and thus making 4th grade safe for children once again. That would have been too wonderful. Her announcement wafted over our heads menacingly like the smell that occurred when she made a boy named Tony sit on the heater to dry his pants after he peed them. And it was just as disturbing.

I can’t remember what led up to it but this is what she said:

Sister Gabriel
There is no Tooth Fairy. There is no Easter
Bunny, and there is no Santa Claus!

 Miscellaneous Children
(Whimpering and Screaming)

As you can imagine, we were distraught and all ran home crying to our parents. Kids back then weren’t as jaded or grown up as kids are today. Our childhoods, and in many respects our innocence, lasted longer. All of my friends still believed in Santa at the age of nine, so Sister Gabriel’s announcement caused a bit of a moral dilemma. On the one hand, there was this authority figure, and a nun to boot, telling us this “truth”. On the other hand, she was a mean old biddy who hated children. What to think, what to think.

When I informed my mother what Sister Gabriel had said, she was very upset, saying that Sister Gabriel had no right to say such a thing, who did she think she was, etc. Then Mom calmed down and proceeded to dazzle me with her explanation.

Well, I feel sorry for Sister Gabriel
because the only thing she’ll get in
her  Christmas stocking is coal.

That was an excellent passive-aggressive response, wasn’t it? Fake concern for Sister Gabriel’s stocking contents while delivering an insult. Give my mother some props! Mom then went on.

But, is she right? Is Santa a lie?

Let me ask you a question.
Do you fill your own
Christmas stocking?

No! Who fills their own stocking?

That’s right. Mommy doesn’t fill
hers and Daddy doesn’t fill his.
Let me ask you another question.

Do you see how my mother has mastered the art of deflection? Like a smooth politician, she never answered my original question but went on to distract me with other questions and answers. Brilliant!

Do you fill Daddy’s stocking?

Of course not!

How about Mommy’s stocking?

No! You’re silly.

Well, if you don’t fill your stocking and you
don’t fill Mommy’s and Daddy’s stockings
and Mommy and Daddy don’t fill their
stockings, who fills them? Hmm?

This reminds me of those annoying word problems in math class that would include lots of extra information not needed to actually solve the problem. Instead of focusing on the trains traveling in opposite directions, I’d always get hung up on what the conductor’s name was or what kind of sandwich he was eating. Now I see why.

Well, it has to be…Santa!

I proceeded to hug my mother and I ended up believing in Santa Claus for another couple of years. Mom gave me more than answers that year. She gave me the permission to continue believing despite the protestations of others.  And she gave me love. These two things have always been the most treasured gifts. They certainly beat coal. Do you hear that, Sister Gabriel?

I Was a Christmas Cover Girl

The photo above is my first and last modeling job. While my friend Adele Uddo is a parts model extraordinaire, I peaked at age 3. Ah, well, such is the fickle finger of fate and fame. (Ooh, you know how I love alliteration!) I was a cute little kid, though, wasn’t I?

I guess that technically this wasn’t a modeling job per se, despite the fact that I was the December 1968 cover girl. Where did my cuteness appear? Time? Reader’s Digest? No, it was in this specialized publication:


Not familiar with it? Well, let me enlighten you. This was the monthly periodical that was put out by the company for which my father worked. It was a brewery called Lucky Lager. Labatt’s Brewery out of Canada was also part of the company. My Dad was a pressman in the duplicating department, responsible for all of the printed materials.

Apparently, a call went out among the employees asking if anyone had a child who would make a good model for the Christmas edition. So, being the proud father that he was, my Dad brought me in and I was chosen. One of my earliest memories is being at the photo shoot.

I remember that it was a warm day, probably late summer. My Mom, Dad and I went to a photography studio and boy, were we in for a long day. The only other memory I have from that day was staring at that candle in front of me, FOR HOURS. The photographer would give me a break every once in awhile but very soon, I’d be back, staring.

Thinking back on that now, 43 years later, it’s astounding to me that I was able to do it. How many three year-olds do you know who would have the patience, good humor and good manners to pose and re-pose for hours upon end? I don’t know any, but then again, I wasn’t an ordinary child.

According to my parents, I was the kind of kid they could take anywhere. I was polite, I only spoke when I was spoken to, I didn’t touch things, I didn’t scream, whine or otherwise act like a brat. I was every parent’s dream.

Were my parents tyrants who instilled the fear of God into me? Hardly. From as early as I can remember, I just preferred doing things that would make them happy. It made me happy. I could never understand it when I’d see other kids throwing tantrums and behaving like little jackasses. What was in it for them? They simply managed to make their parents angry and annoy everyone else in earshot. However, their behavior did make me look even better by comparison. (As I’ve said before, I’m a Leo and an only child. This means that I ADORE being thought of as wonderful.)

I understand how lucky I was that I had parents who loved me, paid attention to me and treated me like I mattered. They were interested in what I thought and how I felt so I didn’t have to create chaos to get their attention. When you’re being ignored, I guess even negative attention is attention. I feel for those kids when I see them acting out now, even though their behavior tries my patience.

My parents weren’t well off. They lived in a one bedroom flat in San Francisco’s Mission District for 27 years. I spent the first 17 years of my life there. My bedroom was really a dining room, but I didn’t even notice. My childhood was full of love, laughter and learning. I was a very happy child in general, and I loved my parents so very much. I always knew the feeling was mutual, even during those times that were a little more challenging. I think you can see the love in these photos from that Christmas in 1968. I sure can.

One Holiday At A Time

I was out at the mall today trying to get a head start on my Christmas shopping. Now, before I say another word, I must admit that I LOVE Christmas. As a child, I used to play Christmas music in July because I was so anxious for it to arrive. I had to get myself in the mood for Christmas because back then, there were no “Christmas in July” sales and the like. We, as a culture, got through one holiday at a time. Shocking, but true.

Now, you can spot trees, tinsel and the usual suspects practically after Labor Day and it’s a full-on assault as soon as Halloween is over. The reason Christmas is pushed on us earlier and earlier each year comes down to one thing: money. Retailers need to extend the shopping season for as long as possible, especially during these challenging economic times. I don’t blame them. They are businesses doing what they need to do for their bottom line. I get that.

However, it does make me nostalgic for my childhood and how the anticipation for Christmas built and became official the day after Thanksgiving. With this in mind, there is one retailer out there who is keeping a pledge to not start hyping Christmas until after Thanksgiving. This retailer is Nordstrom. Here’s a sign that is adorning their stores nationwide:

Apparently, this has been a long-standing policy but I guess I haven’t been in Nordstrom this close to Thanksgiving before. I applaud them for this and I’d love to shop there more often, but funds are a bit tighter this year. Nevertheless, I think Nordstrom’s stance can serve as a good reminder for us all to slow down, not race through our lives and wish it away. The present moment is all we have and we need to embrace it. I’m speaking as much to myself as I am to you when I say this.

There is nothing wrong with being an early, organized shopper, getting your Christmas tree up Thanksgiving weekend, or beginning to watch your collection of Christmas-themed DVDs. I am one of these people and I plan on staying that way. I will do all of these things and enjoy them immensely. I just want to take time out to be mindful and thankful first before visions of sugarplums start dancing in my head.