Dear Switchback fans,
It’s amazing to see how a box of Christmas ornaments can stir memories. I was recently in Woodstock, Illinois visiting my dad on a cold day. The sun was out, but the wind chill was around 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The open fields of McHenry County picked up the granules of snow and flung them into the air so that the back field sparkled in sun. The prismatic effect carried through the fences and over the drifts before curling around and shaking the old farm house. The house was warm and Dad was drowsing a bit and when he awakened, we would talk. I brought out his tackle boxes and together we went through all three of them (fishermen, you can relate) and I organized each one. One shelf had the plastic worms, Mr. Twisters, another shelf had the spinner baits and small spoons. The next shelf, the plugs, the Shimmy Shads, and the poppers that looked like frogs. All the while, I held them up to Dad and he peered through a magnifying glass to inspect one or another. It was fun to talk about summers past, and just looking at the tackle boxes made me anticipate the warmth of summer, the open lake and a chance to get that fish. It’s something that is hard to do as a full time musician, and it is even tougher to schedule that time with your parent.
So while Dad took a nap, I walked into the living room. My brother Robert had brought up the boxes of Christmas decorations from the basement. There was the Allied Van Lines box that contained all the glass ornaments for the tree. That cardboard box had been part of the family since 1967 or earlier. It was amazing to see that even a cardboard box would stir memories of Christmases past.
In our family, we had a lot of traditions for Christmas and they all came out of cardboard boxes. Decorating the tree took place about a week before Christmas. Dad would bring the tree and it would sit out on the porch for a day or two until we were ready to get at it. Nevermind if it snowed on it. In it would come and the snow and cold would drop off onto newspapers set on the floor. We had an old, metal tree stand that had three sockets for full sized light bulbs. The sockets had long ago burnt out, but the stand was sturdy and could take an 8 foot tall tree. We would anchor that tree into the dull, green metal stand, twisting the bolts and making sure it was secure. And then we would bring out the lights. Not these LED, dainty lights we now have, but thick cords, wrapped in cloth, with a good sized blue, red or green bulb. A wooden red ball would be around the cord near the bulb so you could get it on the branch. You always had to work from the inside of the tree out and from the bottom of the tree up. The bulbs would get hot and slowly, the glowing bulbs would help the tree fill out by their sheer weight.
Next would be the tinsel. Yes, remember tinsel? Tinsel was what separated the men from the boys when it came to Christmas trees. And you could not cheat when putting it up on the tree. Again, from the inside out, one strand at a time. Inevitably Peter or Colin would take two or three of these strands, and licking them, would put them on the front hall antique mirror. Calling Mom over, they would point and say, “Mom, David broke the front hall mirror!” And my Mom would then would scream and it would take about 15 minutes to convince her that indeed, it was only tinsel and not really a crack. She would then forget about the trick until it was repeated a year later. If you really wanted to get Mom mad, you would carelessly throw tinsel in the air and see if the branches would just catch it and have gravity do the rest. That was not allowed and tantamount to desecration of the Christmas tree.
Finally, lit and tinseled, out would come the ornaments. Beautiful German ornaments that had winter scenes hand painted on their hand blown surfaces. Delicate Italian metal ornaments of miniature nativity scenes. Wooden cut outs, again hand painted, of all the Peanuts characters from “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown” taking residence next to antique frosted pine cones. Hundreds of ornaments gathered over the years, each having a unique story.
Mom would have the Firestone Christmas album on the phonograph and in spite of its soothing tones and joyous melodies, there was always time for shenanigans to ruin another attempt at a peaceful family moment. Like the horrible day that Peter took the box that had the “piece de la resistance,” a hand blown, painted star that had been in the family for generations. Thinking the box was empty, he went over to David and cracked it over his head to shock everyone into thinking he had broken the star. He did not realize that the star had actually been placed back into the box to keep it from being broken. That was as close as we ever got to seeing Mom go thermonuclear. And of course “Joy to the World” would be playing. And for each year after that, the broken star remained in its original box, kept with the ornaments, the albatross of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" for our family. That and the bad plastic star from Hornsby's that replaced it with intermittent Italian lights. The goal was to find another antique star, but alas, that was impossible.
Out of another old cardboard box (from Reebie Movers of Chicago and featuring a rather solemn Sphinx on the front) would come the hand-carved nativity set from Italy. This was something that one would never mess with. Each were in smaller cardboard boxes, some from old toys that had been opened and destroyed twenty Christmases earlier. Metal race cars and supersonic passenger jets stamped into metal from Japan (if you tore those toys apart, you could see Japanese characters!) that by now were antiques and the boxes themselves probably collectables on American Pickers.
We would read the story of Christ’s birth and as it unfolded, we would set up the nativity set. Shepherds in the field would bring out the carved sheep and the Italian shepherd, with his felt hat glued firmly in his one hand, a miniature shepherd’s crook in the other. A wonderfully carved cow lying down and looking like it was chewing its cud, and a tired donkey with half closed eyes looking like it was still recovering from the long journey to Bethlehem. Tall stately camels for the three wise men who were resplendent in thick, laced-trimmed cloaks, each bent low to look on in wonder at Jesus in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes and with the most beatific smile.
And of course Mary, looking none the worse for wear after her virgin birth, her arms outstretched in a protective pose and Joseph, standing a bit behind her and gazing at the scene with a look of “what did I get myself into?” on his carved face. Above it all an angel, beautiful in its flowing robes and wooden, delicate wings. It would bear a banner “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” that would sum up the whole miracle of Christmas.
Over the years, as a joke, one of the brothers might put the porcelain monkey that was dressed as a doctor (a gag gift from medical school), with its hands behind his back holding a big hypodermic needle, peering over the shepherd. Or the carved tarantula that was brought from Venezuela by Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jim, penned in with the donkey and cow. Just a test to see if Mom or anyone else was paying attention to the nativity scene. These would be removed by the Nativity Police, only to be replaced by other strange knick-knacks that existed in the house.
Mother had a massive Santa collection that would come out and dominate the mantelpiece over the fireplace. Soap Santas, wooden Santas, a porcelain Santa from Japan, with his hands on his hips and a smile on his Asian features. Santas taken out of more cardboard boxes, wrapped in old wrapping paper, newspaper or gauze. And each unfolding, each opening of the box would bring out memories of Christmases past. Tiny little Santas made of bone china and plastic Santas that could survive a shot from a cannon. Each would take their rightful place over the fireplace mantel.
And in these little boxes would be bits of pine needles from trees past, or a twisted piece of tinsel from when each would be taken away and placed back in the box until another Christmas.
And still more cardboard boxes, with plastic wreaths that were older than me and still would be ready to hang in each window of the house. A big plastic holly wreath for the front door. A pink frosted fiberglass wreath festooned with silver ornaments for the other.
There they all sat. In the boxes. Memories of Christmas past.
On Christmas morning, we would come into the living room (always blocked from view by a sheet from a bed) and witness what Santa had brought. When we were really little, Dad would film us with a super 8 camera and a row of bright light bulbs that would blind you as you entered the room. And all the gifts that came in boxes. All the toys. Eventually Mom got tired of boxes and changed to big plastic contractor bags. We would go around, each kid closing his or her eyes, and pull out a gift. As we grew older, we knew that the sweater vest Joseph just received would be duplicated for Tony, for Fran, for David, myself, Peter, Colin, Robby and even Celia. Or the Christmas of the Morris Flow-Ball pens. Everyone got one and it became a joke to exclaim, “Oh, a Morris Flow-Ball Pen” as each kid pulled it out of their bag.
It was amazing how my Mother could gather gifts and store them for future Christmases. It was not unusual to get a shirt from a defunct store, circa 1980, twelve years later. Such was the power of the room at the end of the hall that contained all of Mom’s purchases, and called “The Little End Bedroom Store.” Even with Mom's passing, the Little End Bedroom Store probably has enough gifts to keep going until 2035.
I suspect all of us have these memories, these cardboard boxes. I chuckle as I see the boxes I am starting to fill for Áine.
Such memories are the heart of Christmas, those wonderful time capsules, those benign ghosts of Christmases past that conjure that one moment when the earth truly seems in reach of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” All the memories are passed on to future generations, unless broken when smashed over the head of a sibling. Those that survive secure the bonds of love, of family, that are in our grasp at Christmas. But the important note to me is that it takes the cardboard box to keep safe the delicate memories. Each one of us is like that box, and we all have the delicate beauty of the true meaning of Christmas to hold sacred and keep safe for the next generation to treasure. In time, they too will have their cardboard boxes, their memories, and on and on it goes. So, my holiday wish to you, dear Switchback fans, is that all your memories be special, delicate, and beautiful, and may all your boxes be of sturdy cardboard.
American Roots & Celtic Soul