Friday, December 7, 2018
Decorating with Dad by Eileen O'Finlan
This Christmas will mark the twenty-second time we’ve celebrated the holiday since my dad passed away at the age of sixty-six. My family is big into holidays. When I was a kid the house was decorated for every one of them, even the minor ones. Christmas, though, was the ultimate. No one got more into the decorating than my dad. He turned our home into Christmas Land, inside and out.
Christmas decorating got underway once we’d returned from Thanksgiving weekend at my grandparents’ home in Bennington, Vermont. Dad was in a festive mood after several days of feasting and visiting with a houseful of relatives.
First the living room had to be rearranged. Over the years Dad, an engineer by trade, developed a strategy for furniture placement. One layout was for Christmas, the other for the rest of the year. It wasn’t just the furniture, either. Knick-knacks and whatnots all over the house exchanged living quarters with the Christmas decorations boxed and stored in the basement.
Once the room was rearranged, the tree set securely in its stand and watered (until we switched to artificial trees), the most difficult and least fun part began - stringing the lights and garland. Extra bulbs were kept on hand since if one went out they all went out. That meant testing every bulb on the string until the culprit was found, replacing it, and hoping that one worked. Heaven help us if more than one bulb went out at the same time. Dad wasn’t much for swearing, but those bulbs were almost guaranteed to elicit a few words more colorful than the lights.
My sister, Cindy, and I endured the interminable wait in order to pounce the moment Dad finished. It was our job to help hang the tinsel and ornaments. We delighted at seeing these old friends that had been out-of-sight, out-of-mind for a year, especially the ones that hung on the trees of my mom’s childhood. My favorite was a set of three delicate, sparkly silver shoes each with a tiny child inside representing Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. Mom and Dad joined in the tree trimming while we all sang along with the Christmas albums on the record player.
Once the tree was completed, we moved to the rest of the room. The top of the huge black and white TV was large enough to hold the snow village. Each house and the church were painted cardboard fitted with a light bulb making their colored cellophane windowpanes glow. There were decorated pine trees and elves made of pinecones, pipe cleaners and felt. Flimsy it may have been, but it was cherished. A tinkerer at heart, Dad kept adding to the village. A mirror became a skating pond, tiny lamp posts graced the “street”. The village eventually outgrew the TV top and had to move to a new location.
A gold bell that played Silent Night hung from one doorway, mistletoe from another. A lighted church sat on the end table on top of sparkly white cotton batting emulating snow and surrounded by Nativity vignettes. Mr. and Mrs. Claus stood on either side of the fireplace. The last thing to be displayed was the crèche. I loved the smell of the papier mache figures and the soft glow from the blue light illuminating Mary’s robe. In the weeks to come I would spend hours playing with the crèche as if it were a doll house.
Not a room escaped decoration. Every window had a candle either on the sill or hanging inside a red wreath. Even the bathroom had a bubble lamp and a candle in the window.
Then came the outside. A large plastic lantern, later to be replaced by a Santa, brightened the front porch. Dad strung colored lights along the porch railing and throughout the hedge in front of the house. After a heavy snowfall red, blue, yellow, green, and purple lights shone through giving the hedge an otherworldly glow.
There was no such thing as too many Christmas decorations as far as Dad was concerned. Over the years, he made tree ornaments including drums and sleds with each of our names on them. He outdid himself the year he made a perpetual calendar. The scene at the top was attached with Velcro and could be changed with the seasons. Naturally, the Christmas scene was the best. It was a miniature replica of our living room right down to the same wallpaper and the clock and candlesticks on our fireplace mantel.
With the decorating complete, our home was transformed. Every day of the Christmas season I played in the wonderland of my own personal Christmas Village. Every night glowed with colorful splendor. The saddest for me was the weekend after New Year’s when everything came down, packed away in the basement, the magic gone, the house returned to normal. It was like waking up from the best ever dream.
Since Dad’s been gone, I decorate the house. Though my taste is a bit different from my dad’s, I seem to have inherited his love for holiday decorating. I still move furniture, to give the tree pride of place. I miss the smell of papier mache from the long lost crèche, my current one being made of sturdier material. I love to sit in the living room in the evening, gazing at the lights on the tree, the one remaining Wynken, Blynken and Nod ornament always prominent. I can feel Dad’s presence in the quiet of the evening. Our styles are very different, but unlike me, he was decorating for kids. His joy came as much from the glee his efforts brought to us as from his own enjoyment of the holiday. I think he is smiling with me as I create my grownup version of Christmas Land. And I’m certain he would appreciate the invention of pre-strung lights on the Christmas tree.
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