Seeing The Trees – A Week of Christmas Visits

We called it, “Going-to-see-the-trees” – the mad parade of visits to relatives’ homes that happened each night between Christmas and New Year’s Day when I was a kid.

The unspoken rule? Everyone must visit, and be visited by, everyone else.

And it was my favorite week of the year.

It started Christmas morning, when my father’s sister Dot and her husband knocked at the door, all dressed up and faces gleaming, arms piled with presents for us six kids. They would admire each of our new toys, still under the tree. Then, like clockwork, my father’s brother Sheldon and his wife would arrive and we’d start the show-and-tell all over again.

christmas tree Colo. Spgs.

Neither couple had children of their own. Which may be why they had the time to dig up interesting presents. One year it was these hard plastic wedges that you walk on, wibble-wobbling on all over the house. One year I got a hand-painted bracelet, and another year a knitting set, though I still can’t knit.

As soon as our guests were seated – like the second they plopped into a chair – I would go for the chocolates in the big cardboard box. No matter that it was only 10:00. It was CHRISTMAS morning!

If you looked carefully you could find the ones with nuts, or maybe fudge. But for the most part, they had cream centers, which are not children’s favorites. These chocolates were reserved for guests, but my mother’s dictum didn’t keep certain siblings from testing them, taking a tiny bites from the bottom.

If my aunt Dot – who I thought was practically perfect with her minty breath and bubble of dark lacquered hair – ever got one of those already-bitten-into chocolates, she never said a word about it.

My mother’s mother and father were our only grandparents. They lived in a row house in the city, in an ethnic neighborhood where everyone spoke Hungarian or Czechoslovakian or Polish. Being Eastern European, they weren’t big on all the commercialism, but celebrated Christmas by attending midnight mass and setting out traditional foods, like nut roll with sweet walnut filling and crescent-shaped cookies called kifli. Gifts were secondary, and small. Usually an article of clothing. Everyone popped in throughout the day, all the aunts, uncles and cousins. We crammed into the tiny kitchen at the back of the house, ate my grandmother’s goodies, and watched my grandfather pour shots of vodka for himself and all the men.

My father, however, had no stomach for the fiery stuff, and discreetly poured his shots down the drain.

The gift exchange between the cousins didn’t happen on Christmas Day, but when we went to see their trees during the week of Christmas visits

These visits were all the more special because as a rule, kids didn’t go out at night. But out we went, all bundled up, listening to Christmas songs on the car radio and oohing and ahhing over all the lights. It was otherworldly.

My mother would tell us beforehand, “We’re going to Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Herb’s. To see their tree.”

We’d drop our coats on the master bed and stand in front of the tree, exclaiming over its size (my Uncle Herb’s tree always took up half the living room), and the ornaments (discussing whose grandmother handed down which bauble), and we’d breathe in the delicious scent of pine. My favorite decorations were bubble lights and angel hair – that wispy stuff my father never let us touch.

Finally, we children received our presents. They were nothing big, but always appreciated. One year I got a transistor radio and could tune into a station in New York City that played top-ten rock and roll. It was quite a thrill.

Our cousins would have to come to our house to get their presents. That was the unspoken rule. That way, everyone visited everyone else. And everyone could show hospitality, usually by offering the very same nut breads and cookies.

The visiting ended on New Year’s Day. But not before our family of eight consumed another huge meal at my mother’s cherry dining table with the extra leaves pulled out – usually turkey with all the trimmings. In the afternoon we would either receive guests or pile back in the car – to see someone else’s tree.

Because back then, the tree was the big thing. Before high-ticket items became popular, and children were happy to get a few nice gifts. Another reason why trees were special: While there were small children in the house, my parents, like many others at that time, put our tree up on Christmas Eve. What a spectacle it was, all lit up  in the darkness of Christmas morning.

We were proud of our trees. They reflected our individual families, our histories and traditions. Perhaps that is why seeing the one another’s trees at Christmastime was so important, and why we all bundled up in the cold year and year, and drove through town – until the last Christmas carol faded from the car radio, and the last piece of chocolate candy had been nibbled away at the bottom. FFG

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