Remembrance, like a candle, burns brightest at Christmas time. Charles Dickens
Getting into the Christmas and overall holiday spirit in South Florida is sometimes not easily achieved when you were born and raised in the North East with cold-temperature Christmases, while the outside temperatures here are roughly the same as it is on the Fourth of July, or Halloween, or Easter or Valentines Day. The exception is anytime I walk by real Christmas trees for sale and catch the whiff of cut fresh evergreens. That smell carries me back to assorted Christmastimes, especially those in my youth.
I was the youngest of three children to a blue-collar father and stay-at-home mother. We lived in a two-story duplex in a Philadelphia suburb and we knew all of our neighbors by name on both sides of the entire street. Our Christmas tradition as far back as I can remember consisted of a family outing to pick a tree the week before Christmas and letting the tree get acclimated to the inside temperature for 24 hours before putting it in a stand and giving it water. In nakedness, the chosen tree stood silently awaiting Christmas Eve, nestled nicely between a beautiful fireplace and a large console black and white television set. In our house, Santa visited and did everything while we slept; decorated the tree, wrapped all the presents, and scattered them willy-nilly under the tree.
The sudden fragrance of evergreen a few days ago brought an instant image of walking down the steps to the living room on a Christmas morning and seeing for the first time a room magically transformed into a Christmas wonderland filed with a brightly decorated tree, enough presents to fill half the room, and a cozy fire in the fireplace, being reassuringly told that the fire was made after Santa had been long gone. Each year one of us was honored with the job of selecting the next present to be opened followed by handing the gift personally to the recipient. I usually got very fidgety and annoying if one or two presents went by without my name being called. Being the youngest child, I was a spoiled brat so naturally my behavior often needed correction. I never once believed in my youth that “giving was better than receiving.” When all the presents had been distributed, the highlight each year was one hidden present for each of us that could only be found by following a hand-written series of clues hidden about the house. The three of us each took our respective turns dashing madly from room to room, basement to attic. My favorite year’s hunt took me finally to the front porch where a 26″ black, 3-speed bicycle sat regally underneath a giant red bow.. I hopped on, still wearing my pajamas and slippers and ignoring the cold weather, rode around my neighborhood for wonderful, carefree hours. Strange behavior I know, but happy behavior.
My worst year became the worst year because of an accident. After following all the clues, I was rewarded with a hand-made, hand-stained cherry wood knight’s broad sword, just like King Arthur and his round-table followers used to combat the realm’s enemies. And to make it truly unique to me, my name was etched and painted in white on the cross bar. I loved it! It was the most beautiful gift I had ever seen and what made it extra, extra special was that my Dad had made it himself, especially for me. I loved it so much I tore out the back door and ran four houses away from me to my best-buddy Clark’s house. He came out and we went to his back yard looking for something to vanquish. Clark asked if he could hold it and when firmly in his clasp, he swung it behind him, hitting accidentally a metal pole in the ground that was used as one support of lines to hang laundry outside. “Crack” went the sword, splitting itself into three pieces. I stood stunned a few seconds before the tears came. I walked back home listening to Clark’s heartfelt “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry” behind me. I showed my father the sword’s remains and he told me there would never be another sword like that because I didn’t know how to take care of things, and proceeded to lecture me on why it is important to be able to take care of things so that accidents wouldn’t happen. To this day I mourn the loss of that sword and the symbolic personal bond between my father and me. A few Christmases later, he gave me another sword with a covering sheath made out of metal, both beautifully inscribed with assorted decorations and symbols. It’s handle was made of ivory with a knight’s head carved on the very top. I took it into imagined battles many times and survived with only two separate dents in the sheath; this made it more difficult to slide the sword in and out of the sheath. My father just shook his head, disapproving silently. It was to be my last magical gift of youth I ever received. I credit that fact with my life-long inability to take care of nice things, especially favored glasses and dishes bought by my wife. However, the sword never broke and I still have it and dented sheath today. One of my granddaughters years ago asked me if I would give it to her some day and I promised I would. That day is rapidly approaching, and when it arrives, I will lovingly hand it over and tell her to enjoy it however she wants, without any additional discourse on the importance of taking care of it. After all, what good is a female knight with a sword she can’t use?