Sunday, December 19, 1999

A few good Christmas traditions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Somewhere there is a place where fat, feathery snowflakes tumble gently from the sky in slow motion, where tangerines grow on fir trees and the air is rich with the perfume of pine needles and roasting turkey, where silence is broken by the tinkling chimes of little brass angels swirling graceful loops around a flickering candle.

        I think it's the place where they bottle the sights, sounds and smells of 100-proof Christmas spirit, so we can pass it around once a year. Just a sip makes children swoon with delight at the sight of an unopened present, then stay up late into the night listening intently for the soft tap of reindeer hooves on roof shingles. A taste makes women tipsy with tearful joy at the everyday sight of their family gathered together, hands held in prayer before dinner. A few gulps can make grown men so giddy with goodwill they put on loud Santa Claus neckties and plunge into the mall crowds to go shopping for whole minutes at a time, bringing home gifts with “some assembly required” long into the Christmas dawn.

        Christmas spirit goes with eggnog, sleigh-shaped cookies, logs in the fireplace, strings of red, green and blue lights, choir music and a splash of bubbly excitement. It causes euphoria, relaxation and — sooner or later — the uncorking of well-aged traditions.

        For newlyweds, the first Christmas is like two speeding locomotives colliding in a train-wreck of rituals. He likes blinking lights. She prefers the “peaceful” lights that sit still. He likes his Country Christmas with Brenda Lee “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.” She prefers Handel's Messiah, and wants to dash his Elvis tape in pieces like a potter's vessel.

        He grew up with garish chrome shreds of plastic called “icicles” hanging from the family tree like Spanish moss. She winces and accidently vacuums them off the carpet where they have accidentally fallen when she accidentally shook the tree while he was carrying in another log.

        And finally, when they get the Christmas train back on track, they adopt a permanent set of traditions. Hers.

        Later on, the kids come along and choose their own careful rituals to throw on the Christmas fire like kindling — an ornament that must be hung just so, a bedtime story they have to hear, about some Christmas long past, before they were even candy canes on Santa's list.

        And sometimes, chance rings the doorbell with traditions wrapped in red foil.

        Ours includes The Falling Tree. It began on my side of the family — one of the few survivors of the marriage train-wreck. One Christmas morning, my sister's cat was somehow startled by the kind of loud noise a new cap gun might make going off next to a cat's tail. He did what cats naturally do when crazed with terror: He climbed the nearest tree and, reaching the thinning top, made a mournful sound like a distant police siren that rose an octave as our Christmas tree slowly leaned drunkenly and crashed to the carpet like... a falling tree.

        Over the years, the tradition has been revived with a twist: It always happens as we gather to admire our decorations, usually while guests are in the room.

        Last year, after our traditional debate over the proper size of a tree, we selected one that was larger than usual. Sequoia-Size, with a waist like a Sumo wrestler.

        And when we put it in our traditional too-small tree stand, I made the traditional mistake of saying, “Don't worry, it's steady.”

        It never wobbled or swayed. It stood patient, as solid as a tree statue, waiting for the precise moment of sneak attack. Then when a large crowd gathered to admire it, it slowly toppled to the carpet in a crash of ornaments and lights, like a skyscraper in an earthquake movie.

        This year I argued again for a tree that could fall without setting off seismic shock waves that look like underground nuclear tests in China. But the wife wanted one even bigger than last year's, so we compromised — and did it her way.

        Trees come and go, they fall like Christmases, with a clatter and crash of lights and presents, over too fast to change anything. So I try to enjoy it while it stands there: a thing of beauty, decorated with love, an evergreen spirit of joy that began when one little baby was born thousands of years ago, bringing hope to mankind that still swells in our hearts today.

        Merry Christmas.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.