For most of us, the holidays are fraught with connections to childhood, to a less complicated and more secure time in our lives and to the people who loved us best, many of whom are long gone.
Memories kick in reflexively as I stroll the flour-and-spices aisle of the grocery store and recall the holiday baking that was an annual event in my mother's kitchen. The aroma of ginger will always summon memories of her ginger cookies, which were my favorite over the kiflin that my brother preferred.
I took great comfort in the fact that Christmas was always the same. Same cookies, same holiday music playing on the stereo, same ornaments on the tree. In my childhood, a fresh pine was decorated with painted glass ornaments, and because this was the style of tree I had grown up with, I perceived it to be the authentic Christmas tree.
I learned how tenuous the concept of tradition really was when I came home from Christmas in 1974 to find that my mother had purchased - gasp - an artificial tree and - double gasp - had flocked it. If anyone thinks polyester leisure suits were the low point of the '70s, I have news.
Flocking, for the innocents who missed this particularly ugly chapter in Christmas consumerism, was achieved by spraying aerosol-propelled artificial snow. Who knows what toxic substances it was made from, but the goo stuck to any surface it could find and dried to a white crust.
In my mother's defense, the early artificial trees were so obviously plastic that they deserved to be covered up. I suppose if a person felt the need to own one of those early artificial trees, flocking seemed a reasonable option.
But even today, the mental picture of my mother, a person of considerable style and grace, in the garage with newspapers spread across the floor, spraying chemical snow onto our new fake Christmas tree, makes me wince. The '70s reduced otherwise dignified people to moments like this.
To add insult to injury, the '70s ushered in the use of same-color decorations and my mother embraced another unfortunate trend. The flocked tree was decorated with blue bulbs, strands of white lights and garlands of tiny mirrors. The idea was that the little mirrors would be positioned next to the lights to exaggerate their effect. Interesting theory, but it didn't quite work out that way. The mirrors didn't stay in place, despite the vast amounts of time my mother spent fussing with them.
At least we didn't have Barry Manilow singing Christmas carols on the stereo.
In any case, in the moment when I walked through the front door and saw this monstrosity in the living room, I realized that my childhood had ended. I won't say that I was psychically damaged by the experience, but I would have much preferred that my parents had turned my bedroom into a den or sold all of my childhood books and toys in a garage sale. This flocked tree thing just wasn't right.
When I think back to Christmas from childhood, it is Christmas pre-1974 that I remember. The music in the house is an eclectic mix of Handl, Mitch Miller, Bing Crosby and Burl Ives. The aroma of baking wafts through every room, but the living room also smells of pine. In this memory, my mother is standing at the kitchen counter, shooting spritz cookie dough out of a cookie gun to form trees and wreaths.
My job, of course, is to add a red hot to the top of each cookie and to give them all a light dusting with green sugar sprinkles.
To me, that was a real Christmas.