From Christmas Tree to Poinsettia Plant
Holiday symbols bring joy, pain, confusion and finally, peace
Awed by its magnificence and marvel, I remember viewing my first Christmas tree in Lost Angeles in 1936; We lived on Melrose. I had just turned three. The moment and image are forever captured in its completeness, an indelible image in my memory. That Christmas morning, my older sister I were awakened by Mom and Dad. Still in nightgowns, not fully awake, we were led to the small front room. The tree stood, dazzling, twinkling, precious and unforgettable. Very much out of place on the linoleum floor of the small wooden house, it's top touched the ceiling. Whether there were gifts underneath, I don't remember; but the emotional reaction to the brilliantly lit miracle transported me. Magic had taken place. This first of all
Published on LatinoLA: December 20, 2002
Christmas trees was even fully decorated. The lights, the glistening balls, to me it was a tree with jewels, hanging from each branch.
Dad, Texas born, first generation Mexican-American had accepted many of the
holiday traditions brought to the U.S. by European immigrants. Mom, entering the United States as a 12-year-old was more comfortable with the Mexican Christmas log. Presents are placed in the shoes of the sleeping child, not under a tree. So, in my early years, it was actually Dad who brought home our Christmas trees, usually on Christmas Eve. Dad was quite a talker. I am sure the trees were either purchased at a remarkable bargain, or free.
Through the years my sister and I usually did the tree shaping and decorating. I don't remember saving decorations from year to year. We lived in East L.A.on Evergreen street, a community in transition from Jewish to Mexican. We were among the first Mexican families. Grandma and Grandpa lived across the street. Tania and I strung popcorn garlands or paper chains. Making ivory soap snow was an artistic challenge, especially since we had never experienced snow. It was always, "When Dad, when are you going to get the tree?"
In 1948, my sister and I spent our first Christmas totally alone. We were 15 and 16. Mom and Dad had divorced. Fearing Dad's anger, we fled and hide in the small town of Manteca. We arrived a week or so after Thanksgiving. Mom returned to Los Angeles to complete the divorce. We were alone, a three-room bungalow, no neighbors, no relatives, no friends, and no tree. Using food money and nickels squirreled away, we bought a basketball and spent Christmas day shooting baskets in the schoolyard.
In 1950, our third Christmas alone, we had a huge, monstrous tree. Manteca High School gave us the school's Christmas tree. It stood in the foyer and was huge. Some of the decorations had made it home with us. We cut the top off, just below the ceiling of the small bungalow. The green aromatic branches extended and filled most of the living room. The forestry scent dominated the whole house. A few gifts were placed under the large branches. It took me years to realize that in this small farm community, we were given the trees because we were the "needy sisters" in town. Mom found it necessary to live in Los Angeles. With no family in evidence, and nearest relatives' 25 miles away, we learn independence. We were those poor girls on the edge of town, but were not bothered by it. Curiously, that awareness of our want did not come to me until adulthood. It's a good thing no one dropped off a box of food. It might have smashed our sense of contentment. All was right with the world. We were in our senior year. Six more months and we were high school graduates.
Getting married to a man of Jewish background added another dimension to the
"Christmas tree" in my life. Connecting to this American symbol of the holidays had always been a little forced for me. My sister and I had celebrated with everyone else, but no family traditions were behind it. Each year held its own moments. We had not been brought up with any religious faith. My Dad was Catholic, but Mom's side was actually anti-Catholic. Now marriage in December of 1955 to a man who also had no connections to Christmas made the bridge even more tenuous. Venice, California our first home, did not conjure up images of cozy, warm Christmas. Barely a week into our marriage, during Christmas break as UCLA grad students, we put no semblance of a tree up. We were a couple of blocks from the beach, celebration enough.
The first somewhat Christmas tree that adorned our home was a manzanita branch. My husband first teaching job was for a county high school in the middle of Trinity National forest in the most northern part of California. Where allowed by the forest ecology, manzanita trees grew abundantly, and taking a dead branch was not a crime. So in 1956 the first Christmas tree of Mimi and Win Holtzman was a manzanita branch. Only a few red bows decorated it. It was a lovely experience. Huge green firtrees surrounded our little cabin. Weighted down with the snow on their branches, most were outlines of tree. Deer ambling about were like picture perfect Christmas cards.
Another tree brings back visions of snow also, but spread horizontally on a desert plain, Richland, Washington, 1959. Obvious to us, teaching opportunities for a Physical Education major were non-existent. My husband crammed four years of math, science, and physics into three years at UCLA, earned a second Bachelor, and brought us, two babies and me to north-eastern Washington, desert, barren, dry. Wind and cold winter blew tumbleweed bushes across the flat treeless desert. Rolling and bumping they piled up on fences, against the houses. Huge hedges seemed to grow from these tumbleweeds.
But what fell, as if gifts from heaven, was a different snow. To my amazement
these huge flakes, whose individual and unique patterns were easily discernable without magnification, fell. I stood one day in the middle of the descending whirling whiteness, warm tears rolling down my cold cheeks, as these glories fell on my out stretched arms. Nestled in my sweater, they rested. I could see their beauty, their intricate pattern. I yearned to give them permanence. Finally the cold forced me inside. I could not hold them, except in memory. Our desert Christmas tree was tumbleweed. I sprayed it white. Small beads of pearls left over from decorating my wedding headpiece hung delicately from the branches, white tree, white snow, and white pearls.
Contrasted sharply with the tumble weed tree was a spectacular Christmas tree which Mom put up the following year in 1960. Mom had remarried a few years
before, Mom and her new husband had built a television repair business into
a background music business with a radio station and all. Business was booming. They had just bought a big beautiful house in Flintridge, California. Like the monumental first tree carved into my memory as an indication of my Dad's love, so this one stands out. Decorations wrapped presents, food, and time all revealed clearly, Mom's love and joy were being expressed. This occasion was for her two daughters and four very young grandchildren.
As my son and daughter grew, Santa Claus was never more than a representative
of the idea of giving gifts in love was. A pretend character based loosely on a historical figure. As they grew, I too set up trees. My husband did not become part of the preparations. The children and I usually did purchasing and decorating the tree. Sometimes the tree was carried home on top of my little yellow Karmen Gia, sometimes inside. Once with arms stretched out the car window, Aury our son and Tawn our daughter clung to our tree. The spiritual base of the holidays had escaped my attention. My paternal grandfather was anti-Catholic, very unusual for a Mexican. Grandfather,highly educated, felt most of the Christmas story was just that, a story. Mother's reluctance to enter into the spirit was clearer. Trying to understand and accept Jesus, for whom he is, took me through a journey of
introspection and series of investigating different churches. Even spent a summer semester at the Unity School of Christianity in Lee's Summit, Missouri.
I remember feeling how unfair it was that if faith in Jesus was a gift, why I wasn't given it. I wanted to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints because of the example of the people; but how could I, if I didn't believe in Jesus Christ. Soon after that, twice within the same week, chance incidents helped me understand that I had been given the gift of faith. I heard two people use the name of the Lord cursing their situation. One was a child fixing a bike and the other a man standing in a long checkout line. I was indignant. Anger welled up in me. I observed my reaction, somewhat surprised at the depth of my own feelings and suddenly realized that I had come to respect and love Jesus. I had been given the gift of faith. In 1967 I joined the church and became a committed Christian. Entering into the holidays was a joy. I was celebrating the Lord's birthday.
However, just a few years later in 1970, a chance reading about the pagan base of many of the Christmas practices confused and affected me profoundly. Surely practicing the whole holiday season with trees and Santa is wrong. Research sets Jesus' birth in the spring. Early pagans were brought into the church by tying the birth of Jesus to pagan rituals. The Christmas tree was a descendent. The early colonizers were even fined if they greeted someone with a "Merry Christmas." Santa Claus and the shopping frenzy. Newspapers carried articles about families getting into debt. Office parties and liquor had come to be associated with celebrating the season. Was this what the Lord's birth should bring?
My non-Catholic Mexican heritage, Jewish husband, and now religious and social awareness caused me great confusion. What is the right way to celebrate Christmas? For the forty-seven years of my marriage, I've struggled to understand how my family should celebrate Christmas. How to sort out all the conflicts of cultures and beliefs? What is proper? How could I show my family I love and treasure them and be true to my spiritual understanding?
As I joyfully greeted the births of my grandchildren, I sought ways to express my position. About 20 years ago, I purchase a cr?che, with some hesitancy because of my non-practicing-traditions Jewish husband, and also made my own statement outside. I hung a huge Star of David above our garage with a cross in the middle. The six-pointed star was lit with blue and green lights. In the center was the cross of white and gold lights. The neighbor across the street thanked me for the display. "Grandma, what does it mean?" "Jesus was a Jew," I told my grandchildren simply. "Maybe this will remind our Christian neighbors. Jews are our cousins." I hung the decoration for about five years until the task of setting it up and taking it down got to
be too much for me.
However, I think I finally grasped the value of the symbol of the Christmas tree. The huge White House Christmas tree in Washington, D.C. did it. It was obvious with all the furor of separation between Church and State that someone should have been objecting to its display. But it occurred to me. Historically, it reflects the history of the great diversity of nationalities that built this great country. It is not a religious symbol, but a spiritual symbol of brotherhood of man.
Christmas is the season to rededicate ourselves to the principles of love, concern, and brotherhood. It is the time to mend families, strained relations, to show gentleness and kindness. The Christmas tree can reflect the simple and unique history of each family. This year, enjoy the traditions of your family. If you don't have any traditions, start them. Even though my pilgrimage of understanding and accepting the place of the tradition Christmas tree has been difficult, each of my six grandchildren have a their-first-Christmas ornament. I wanted them to know their birth was special. They are special and dearly loved.
The foundation of Christmas is not the tree, but the sacrifice of self, giving joy, giving cheer, giving peace, and giving hope. This year I will set up my cr?che, hang miniature Christmas balls on my Christmas tree (a poinsettia plant), and light a menorah. After 47 years of marriage, that will finally be the tradition of decorating for Christmas in my home.
Small ones, big ones,
Dry ones, strange ones,
Some brought fun,
some softened pain.