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My First Christmas: 85 Years Ago

By Maya Elmer   
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:02:00 AM

Take the time-line, my time line. The present, the unspent-part stretches to the horizon of infinity. But this end is weighted heavily towards nostalgia—sometimes it takes only the flutter of a martin’s winged dance over the marsh to startle my soul into memory, or a snow-burdened pine bough drooping down ward, or a child’s china tea set. Let me tell you. 

December nights roll in quickly in Michigan’s Christmas season. By 5 p.m. Christmas Eve in 1924, even the room is dark, all but the startling magic of the Christmas Tree with its candle lights flickering and glowing. 

In the small living room the couch and chairs have been turned from their places on the far wall, their backs now form a barricade against the spirits of the night. In the angle in front of them, room for the wondrous pagan tribute to the rekindling of earth’s light—The Christmas Tree! 

I know nothing of this symbolism. However, even at four years of age, I know that these days have a special meaning and excitement. I lean into my mother as we sit together in the corner of the overstuffed couch where I feel warm and protected. The candle flames add their heat to the room, their small lights make for mysterious spaces and shadows beyond my vision. Could this have been like what it was before being born ?  


Stille Nacht...heilige Nacht...einsam wacht... 

Si-i-lent night....Ho-o-ly night...    

Holy infant so tender and mild    


My mother begins to sing the German words, trying to teach me. Perhaps remembering HER Christmas Eves with her mother. But tonight in the dusky dark of a Michigan winter’s eve we sing together, curled together. 

I can never sing “Silent Night” without a catch in my throat, or even hear it sung without tears starting to form. It’s not the memory of my first Christmas which springs to mind. Nor the image of my mother and myself. I’m a sentimentalist. I’ve imbued the Mother-and-Child as a relationship special to all peoples and ages. And every brand new baby born: holy, and tender, and mild. 

That afternoon I had gone along with my mom and dad in their search to find the stores which are still selling the little four-inch, twisted Christmas candles as well as boxes of clip-on candle holders. It is hard to find the clips and candles these days. 

Only those emigres who perhaps want to recall their childhood days, or re-create their memories; or more probably who scorn the new-fangled electric wires —whoever heard of electric lights on a tree! Only they are still buying the small Christmas candles. We go in and out of several of the neighborhood small novelty stores with aging inventories. I recall the dimness of the narrow ethnic store on eastside Jefferson Avenue. The long counter stretches to the back of the store, musky odors, the odd assortments on the shelves behind the man. I cling close to my mom’s skirt, very apprehensive of a new place-in-my-life. I am a little girl. 

That self-same afternoon my dad had wrestled the whispy green balsam tree into the corner near the big front window. Is there ever an X-mas tree that stands straight of its own accord? No matter. My father, a research pathologist, with an eye for the exact, was not above tying it straight with a wire attached to the window catch. Somehow I can see the wire stretching out into the nowhere. It glistens in the light. 

In later times and other Decembers, I find myself anchoring, year after year, tying down a tree that just doesn’t stand straight despite all the sighting and shaking that went on in the tree lot. I guess Dad gave me permission. 

The twisty candles each one in its little cup-like holder soldered onto clips, are carefully placed by Dad on the ends of the branches. Each one far enough apart from the one above to exist in its own space. Each flame flowing up, each a halo of light, the throb of a mystic tale. The weight, ever so slight, still brings the boughs closer downward. At all costs, the candle flames must be kept separate. We sit together watching the glow of the candles. BUT we also watch for the candles that burn down too low. 

“See. Daddy. THAT one.” or “Daddy, the yellow one!” 

Our father then gently puts out the one whose beeswax has melted down dangerously while careful not to dislodge the others still burning brightly. The smell of wax and resin and Christmas Tree. And I remember. 


O Tannenbaum. O Tannenbaum. Wie grunst sind deine blatter? 

O Christmas tree. O Christmas tree.... 


That must have been the Christmas when my grandmother Buettner from Chicago was with us; my baby brother Carl was born early in January, so I am just musing. The women are just figures talking and mumuring in the background of the small dining room across the hallway from the living room. In the morning when I open my presents, in the box from my grandmother is a large china tea set: sugar bowl, and pitcher and the rest. The teapot, about nine inches tall, is decorated with a little-girl figure. 

The cups and saucers have been long gone. Grandmother, too, and Mother also. I must have treasured that teapot, even when its handle knocked against a table and fell off. The teapot, with the piece of handle rattling on the inside, had been with me, in a drawer or closet, shelf or box even when I moved to Berkeley in 1983. It’s disappeared now in a lost frenzy of house cleaning. I hadn’t realized until this writing why I had kept it through the years, even without its handle. Now I see fully the connection between that teapot and my grandmother’s love and that first Christmas of memory. 

There is the orange in the toe of the stocking, too.