The little boy, all of four years old, is laying mechanic-style underneath the Christmas tree, his tiny feet poking out amid the brightly-colored wrapped gifts. He’s surrounded by the smell of the fresh pine, fascinated as he watches the amazing kaleidoscope of light and reflections off ornaments and tinsel. Suddenly, the unthinkable happens. In a swift motion, the tree has fallen over, pinning him under it.
Our hero isn’t hurt but just a little startled. His mother, taking the event in calm fashion, begins screaming for the downstairs neighbor, Cathy Patterson, to help free her son from the branches and pine.
With Cathy’s help, within a few moments the tree is righted, the boy is certified uninjured (if a little embarrassed) and broken ornaments are swept up.
Flash forward (emphasis on flash) a few years. The same little boy is still fascinated with the Christmas lights, especially all those electric cords powering the lights. He plugs in the Christmas tree lights into an extension cord, which promptly lights up the entire living room with a nuclear explosion-sized flash of blue light. His mom and dad came racing in: “What happened?” they demand. “Are you okay?”
Shaken, the boy lies as he explains that he was sitting in a chair across the room, minding his own business, when the tree basically exploded. But his parents are suspicious, especially when the extension cord shows major signs of burning and melting (the singed tinsel sticking out of it is pretty damaging, too).
To this day, Mom still uses an artificial Christmas tree, believing that any living tree will become a fiery mass of flame. I know that she also secretly harbors fear that I still have pyromaniac tendencies (especially when I enthusiastically fire up the grill for summer cookouts).
Some other memorable Christmases:
Christmas, 1980: The coldest Christmas ever, with temperatures hitting minus seven below zero. That evening my father cuts a piece of his favorite mince pie and says to me, “We’re all together. You, me, Theresa, Ma, Nana, the dog and cat… My family is all together under one roof, safe and warm. I couldn’t be happier.” My Dad was not a materialistic man. That night; he was truly happy.
December, 1985: We have our first of several annual Christmas parties. We cram nearly forty friends and family into our Dorchester apartment. I remember the laughs, the stories, the huge spread of food and drink, my sister secretly playing quarters with my cousins, my sneaking away to neck with my girlfriend, and my little cousins rearranging the navity set into a mangled jumble I dubbed, “Massacre at Bethlehem.”
Christmas Eve 1988: On my daily visit to Nana’s house, we take a few hours and looked over her old pictures, and I write on the back of each one who was who. She tells me many stories and remembers friends and events. It means so much to her to go over these pictures and remember those dear friends from long ago. I still have those pictures.
Christmas Eve, 1992: Nana has been in the rest home for about six months, and after a near-death experience the previous summer, is looking great. I unwrap her presents: A box of her favorite ribbon candy, and a new cardigan sweater. On that brisk, sunny morning, we share ginger ale and cookies, talk for nearly an hour, and I reflect again how grateful I am for Nana’s new lease on life.
Christmas Eve, 1994: A severe, snowless storm smashes into most of the East. The wind is absolutely ferocious, shaking the house as wind and rain pummel the area. At 3am, we discover our Christmas decorations, trash barrels and other unsecured items flying across the yard. We try to clean things up, but when the street loses power, we retreat to the dark safety of the house. As the wind howls outside, I feel so grateful that we’re together and safe. (That storm later knocks down the Prudential Center Christmas tree.)
Christmas Eve, 1997: After 7pm mass at Saint Mary’s, Fathers Madden, Riley and Hever greet the hundreds of people who have just left Christmas Eve mass. The warm feeling of community is palatable. Under a cold but beautiful star-filled sky, everyone gathers around the priests. The sense of family is overwhelming.
December 1998: We’re at Mom’s house, putting up the tree. Now it’s my two year old nephew Colin under the tree, giving me a silly smile as he fiddles with the branches and squeaks, “I help you.” We get the lights up, except for the one dark set Mom insists she tested before she put them away last year… My sister Theresa begins a hilarious “reminiscence” of some of the ornaments. “This is the sled you made from popsicle sticks,” she says with supposed reverence, (I know better). She holds up a Dixie cup covered in aluminum foil. “Here’s the one we stole from the Uphams Corner Christmas tree when we were five… Where’s the funeral bell?” she says, rummaging for that weird bell ornament that looks just like the incense thing they use at funerals. “Mom, you still have these?” she says, rolling her eyes and holding decorations we made as kids… Colin proudly places some garland on a branch… Sue points out the ornament she made for me when we first met… We debate whether it’s time to replace Mom’s artificial tree. Colin stuffs raisons and carrot sticks into Mom’s Santa sculpture. Another memory stored.
I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite Christmas memories — and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Just be sure to keep the kids away from the Christmas lights — you never know when a piece of tinsel will suddenly just leap off the floor and into an extension cord to cause a massive electrical short. Hey, it happened to me once. And I was on the other side of the room. Really.