Christmas Tree

By Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City Paper 12/2013

It’s Christmastime, 2013, and Mom has just come home carrying bags of Chinese Food.

The Christmas tree at my Mom’s house is all lit up, reflected in the gorgeous mirror that hanged over my grandmother’s fireplace for many decades.

The tree is an artificial tree; it has been since back in 1976 when I was NOT messing around with the electric cords as usual and I was NOT anywhere near the real tree, when a piece of metal tinsel SOMEHOW leapt into the extension cord at the exact moment the plug somehow got into the socket, causing a brilliant flash of light, exploded the top of the extension cord and filled the room with the smell of ozone. My presence in the room at the time was completely COINCIDENTAL.

On a completely unrelated note, I’m not a very good liar. That said, I stand my story of being an innocent bystander to the events in question. Ahem.

Anyway, Mom still does a great job with the tree, switching up ornaments each year, keeping some variety in the presentation. And I am happy to see that the the construction paper ornaments we made in grade school remain thankfully retired.

On the Duncan-Fife table, as it has been for every Christmas of my entire life, is the Nativity set my mother inherited from her mother. The set is at least 60 years old, maybe more; my mother remembers going to buy the first figures of Mary, baby Jesus and Joseph with her mom when she was a young girl, and the set expanded over the years, but still features nearly all of the original pieces; worn away and chipped with time but still beloved.

The Christmas decorations around her house feature the old and the new; Mom retires some decorations each year and often will bring back something from years past. These last few years she has displayed the little plastic elves that she purchased in the 1960s. They are adorable; having adorned many of our childhood Christmases.

On the coffee table are peanuts and Christmas candies, presented much the same way Mom did every Christmas Eve for years — Another simple but beloved tradition.

Mom’s house has also taken on an “Enchanted Village” quality these past few years as she has become fascinated with those animatronic Christmas thingies that sing carols or dance — my personal favorite is the one with the three little penguins who play musical instruments to “Deck the Halls,” and I also like the dog with the ears that go up and down as his cheeks blinks and he sings carols.

Yeah, sometimes I worry about my Mom. A lot. (I kid)

The dining room table has a holiday tablecloth; even the plates are decorated for Christmas and there’s a Dickens-themed Christmas village on the counter that Mom says she picked up after Christmas one year — it’s really festive.

Everywhere I look, there’s a little decoration. What’s impressive is that Mom strikes just the right balance — just the right amount of decorating to celebrate our favorite holiday and still keep it tasteful and elegant.

And visiting the house the other night, in a place that is always welcoming and home, I feel so happy. I’m sitting on the couch with my wife, sister, Mom, nephew and his girlfriend, and we are enjoying Chinese food, noshing on a high-calorie desert, and laughing.

We’re telling stories, reliving silly memories, embarrassing each other, and getting into amusing discussions about life, history, and family craziness. The discussions are animated, sometimes ridiculous or nostalgic, and always entertaining.

And as I enjoy another slice of something that is going to blow my diet again, I think to myself, this is what Christmas is about to me: Spending time with the people I care about. MAKING time for them.

No family isn’t perfect, but I thank God every day we’re still so very close. That we take care of each other. That the bonds grow stronger as we grow older.

And it’s my mom, to this day, who reminds me that we need to help others as much as possible. To give back. See, when I was a kid and my dad got sick — (this was years before the cancer was diagnosed), we were on welfare for three years. The church brought holiday meals and clothes and toys during those lean times.

My dad was, and my mom is, hard-working people, but the help was needed and they were grateful for it. It made a difference. We will never forget that kindness.

And a few years later, from the moment Mom went to work, she reminded us: Give back. Help others. Be generous. Be kind. Everyone needs help sometimes.

To this day she gives generously to her church, to a local homeless shelter, and performs countless acts of compassion and generosity.  She has been an angel for so many people, in large ways and small.

I think about how my Mom was my first role model of how to be generous. How to help others. I am so profoundly grateful for that. And for her. And that she still makes such a big deal out of Christmas for us — we love it. We’re still little kids at Mom’s!

And that night, as I sit there in Mom’s Christmas village of a living room, enjoying the laughs and good company, and feeling the happy vibe in the room, a thought tingled in my mind — I resolve that in 2014 and onward I will try to reach out a little more myself.

Yeah, I do what I can but I realize I have been wallowing a little too much in my comfort zone again this past year, doing a little too much contemplation and not enough DOING. I need to call that friend I haven’t caught up with, to send an email to the person who needs to hear something nice, to actually make time to have lunch with a friend or encourage someone who needs a smile in their life. To give back a little more where possible.

Without getting too preachy, I would encourage you to do the same. The news every day is so troubling — worldwide and here at home — and it seems, in these dark winter months, that hope is sometimes in short supply. We can change that, one little act of kindness at a time. None of us can solve world hunger or save the whales on their own, but we CAN resolve to try to get out of our own little boxes once in a while and do something nice for someone who needs it. Not just during the season, but all the time. End of speech.

And to my mom, who will likely read this and say, “You are so sweet!” thank you for being my first and best role model for generosity and kindness at Christmas and always. I am so grateful that our Christmas visit is just one of countless hours spent with you and the family throughout each year — I’ll never take it for granted!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Moms Nativity Set

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