Note: A version of this piece first appeared on my garden blog three years ago. I’ve mostly retired that blog to focus on this one, but I hope to share a few pieces from it—and from other past blogs—on here from time to time. I’m busy preparing for a long-awaited holiday road trip, so this seems like a good time to recycle something from the past. I hope you enjoy it.
Christmas is one of those times when past and present converge in a strange time warp. Memories haunt this time of year, resurrected by the familiar sights, sounds, and scents of Christmas: happy memories we try to recreate for our kids and grandkids (often at the cost of our own sanity) and sad memories of loneliness, dysfunctional families, or loved ones no longer with us. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present blur together in a muddle of memory and emotion and nostalgia. It’s no wonder people drink a lot this time of year.
But this isn’t going to be an essay on the joy or heartbreak of Christmas or (heaven forbid) how to do Christmas right (damn you, Martha Stewart!) Instead, I’m going to share one of my Christmas stories with you, the first memory of Christmas I have. So come on in, find a comfy chair, and join me for a visit to my Christmas Past.
The first Christmas I remember was when I was somewhere between 4 and 6 years old, so sometime between 1971 and 1973. We lived in the country in Northern California, and we were, ahem, dirt poor (garden jokes = dad jokes with dirt, not to be confused with dirty dad jokes). I don’t remember the presents I got that year, though I’m sure there were one or two. What I do remember are the ornaments. My mother bought a dozen royal blue Christmas balls, and those were the only ornaments we had. So my mother, being the creative problem-solver she was, decided we would make more. We cut up styrofoam meat trays and some other sort of packaging we had lying around, glued bits of eucalyptus to them (California, remember? Not a lot of evergreens where we lived except for juniper), and coated the results in silver spray paint. A Krylon Christmas! See? When I describe myself as a California redneck, I’m not lyin’.
Somehow my parents had found the money for an artificial tree, and that year it was festooned with blue globes and silver eucalyptus meat tray parts. Awesome, huh?
The last of the blue balls (ho ho ho – I said, “blue balls”) broke about 20 years ago, but I still have a few of the Krylon-coated meat tray ornaments. There’s a picture of one of them at the beginning of this post. Here are some more:
They don’t have much eucalyptus left–it’s worn off over the last nearly 50 years of loving use–but they’re still around, and I still hang them on the Christmas tree. Each time I do, I think of my mother, doing the best she could, making something beautiful out of what she had and could afford–and teaching me to do the same.
I’m not poor now. We aren’t rich, but we have what we need and some of what we want, and that is a blessing beyond measure. But the lesson I learned that Christmas, cutting out scraps and gathering bits of eucalyptus, has stuck with me. For me, it’s part of the allure of gardening. You can start with almost nothing–a tiny seed, a fragile transplant, a cutting–and nurture it into something beautiful. Growing things is a form of magic to me, a way to make something out of (almost) nothing. Gardening also teaches me to find clever uses for stuff that other people throw away: garden art from recycled materials, pots from yogurt containers, winter-sowing containers from takeout boxes, and, of course, compost from kitchen scraps and yard debris. Reuse and repurpose and recycle–and make something beautiful. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me a lesson that has shaped my life all these many years. It’s the best Christmas gift you ever gave me.
2019 update: My mother passed away in late September. May this post and the one I wrote last Christmas stand in tribute to the woman who gave me more than I can ever say. I miss you, Mom.