The Holiday Spirit
I didn't ignore Christmas all those years. I just didn’t pay it much attention.
When I was a kid, I knew more about the story of Christmas from pop music and carols than I did from the Bible. Jesus had a birthday. I got presents. We would decorate the house and bring a tree inside. All the stores in Cross County Shopping Center, in Yonkers, along with the big stores on 5th Avenue in the city, decorated their windows. Christmas was a big deal, but I was more into the Sears Christmas catalog than I was in what the church said. I always liked the trappings of Christmas more than the message and, in later years, the holiday spirit was more about family than anything else.
My mom would pull out the boxes of decorations at some point in early December. She liked to decorate. I’m sure she had her reasons, but that was her business and she’s not around to explain. She just liked to do up the house and the tree. Buying the tree was my father’s job. I would go with him in our Olds 88, later a Cutlass, to some place in Ardsley or Yonkers, buy a tree, tie it to the roof of the car with ropes through the side windows and over the top, then drive it home. We’d stand it up with the ancient steel tree holder and then my mom and I would go to work. First we wrapped the colored lights, and that is the moment it began to feel magical every year, when we plugged the string of lights into the wall outlet. Then came the hanging bulbs, garland, old popcorn strings that she had threaded, plastic icicles, a very old illuminated star, and tinsel. I loved that tinsel.
My father and I would take a few strings of lights outside and decorate this one big bush that grew by our front steps. They were the old incandescent lights. The colors were enamel and baked on and each bulb had a little rubber gasket to seal it against the weather. When mini bulbs came out, we were the last family to get any. They seemed futuristic to me, but they were not as special as those old bulbs that got too hot to touch. When Christmas was over, we would take it all down and the mass, consensual hallucination was over and life returned to normal. Still, for a few weeks, there was a spirit in the air.
Some people seem to celebrate too much, some not enough. I am not the one to judge. It’s strange what drives a person to mark a holiday, a season, or an event. What does a tree signify? A string of lights? A box of ornaments? What happens when you can’t stop decorating and run out of room on your lawn for the inflatable figures? Does it matter? Should I be asking these questions? Let others do what they like. I’ll tell you what the holidays mean to me: family, memory, a quiet sigh inside.
What I had once is long gone. I never tried to re-create it by making a family of my own. I hold those memories close - the Christmas season, the tree and presents, visiting all the relatives. Piling into the Oldsmobile and driving to south Yonkers, then the Bronx, then Inwood, then Manhattan, stopping along the way to celebrate with members of the extended family. Auto-complete and artificial intelligence did not exist then. We navigated the world in real time and three dimensions - except for TV, I guess, which served up “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
That was MY childhood. The kids now will have memories that are just as precious to them, no better and no worse. What matters to me about Christmas, about New Year’s, Easter and the other holidays, is the connection to my long-lost family. The treasure now is to remember. Not to live in the past, but to honor it. “Look back," I've been told, "but don’t stare.”
I got a tree this year for the first time in decades. It’s a little thing and it’s not even real, but it’s still a tree and I had to get some decorations, then a few more. And what’s a tree without a string or two of lights? See how one thing leads to another? I never ignored Christmas all those years. I just didn’t pay it much attention. In fact, I honored Christmas all by myself for many years by making a big pot of ravioli and capping it with pie.
Those old ceremonies from the church or from the ancient pagan days - they are really about people, tribalism in the best sense. All of my ravioli years, I was not an island, but I came close and could have been a rock at the end of a long peninsula. I am not in the thick of things now, but I did buy a tree. I don’t think it has to mean much. But what do I know?
Am I celebrating too much?
All photos by Paul Vlachos.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and “Exit Culture” in 2023. He currently has a solo photography show PRIVATE/NYC on view at Art Cake in Brooklyn, New York.