As long as I can remember, my Dad came home every December with a scraggly blue spruce, fragrant with the scent of winter, tiny icicles hanging from the branches. The frozen miniature crystal daggers would melt quickly on Mom’s well-scrubbed parquet floor. I never knew nor asked where he had found it, or how he could afford it. His modest salary of $70 a month barely covered the rent, utilities, and food. Mom had to work as well to afford our clothes. Prices were subsidized by the government and salaries were very low for everybody regardless of education and skill. We had to make do with very little.
No matter how bare the branches of my Christmas tree were, it was magical to me. Two metal bars forged by hand helped Dad nail the tree to the floor at the foot of the couch where I slept in the living room that doubled as my bedroom. Our tiny apartment only had one bedroom where my parents slept.
Decorating it was a fun job every year since I made new decorations from colorful crepe paper. We had to be creative; we could not afford glass ornaments. We made paper cones covered with craftily rolled crepe paper and filled with candy. I hung small apples with red string, tiny pretzels, home-made butter cookies, candied fruit, raisins, and an occasional orange wrapped in tissue paper with strange lettering, coming all the way from Israel. Each year we bought 12 small red and green candles which we attached to the tree with small metal clips. We were careful to clamp them at the tip of the branch to keep the tree from catching fire when the candles were lit. The tree would live for two weeks before the prickly needles fell all over the living room floor.
One year I spent Christmas with uncle Ion and his wife. A gifted mechanical engineer, Ion could fix and build anything. He promised that he would fashion lights for his Christmas tree. He worked painstakingly for weeks, soldering tiny copper wires into bundles that stretched along the branches of the tree like a magical cascade to which he soldered at least 200 tiny bulbs sold as bike lights. It was a labor of love! When the wires were finally attached to a relay, the bulbs lit up like a waterfall. Nobody had such a fantastically blazing tree in the whole country. I was amazed at his dedication and craftiness and never forgot his fairytale Christmas fir.
We did not have a tree skirt but we used one of Mom’s hand-stitched tablecloths. The whole apartment smelled like the fragrant mountains and, for a couple of weeks we forgot the misery that surrounded us. We lit up the 12 candles on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.
Every night for two weeks, I would admire my enchanted tree until I fell asleep, wondering what special treat I would find under my pillow on Christmas morning. It was never much, but it was such a cherished joy!
Saint Nicholas Day was celebrated on December 6th. We really didn’t know much about the real St. Nicholas, Santa Claus’s namesake. St. Nicholas was a popular saint in the Orthodox Church and presumed the bishop of Myra in Turkey in the 300s. There were many legends of St. Nicholas – the more famous story that he was the son of a wealthy family in Patara, Lycia. When his parents died, he gave away his fortune. One such random act of kindness involved throwing three bags of gold through the windows of three girls who were going to be forced into prostitution.
On Saint Nicholas Day, I would put my boots outside the door, hoping that they would be filled with candy in the morning and not coals. Grandpa had a wicked sense of humor – he would sometimes fill one boot with sticks and another with candy and a chocolate bar.
Grandpa never bought a blue spruce – we cut a fir tree from the woods. We were careful not to cut down a tree that had bird nests in it. We decorated it with garland made from shiny and multi-colored construction paper. We cut strips, glued them in an interlocking pattern and voila, we had our garland. For ornaments we used walnuts and shriveled apples from his cellar, tied with Grandma’s red knitting wool.
The warm adobe style fireplace built from mud bricks mixed with straw cast a dancing glow on the tree decked with tokens of food, something our heathen Roman ancestors did during the celebration of Saturnalia. On December 17, the polytheistic Romans celebrated Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, for an entire week. As Christians, we celebrated the birth of Christ and the religious traditions in our Orthodox faith, in spite of the communist regime forcing the transformation of Christmas into a secular holiday.
On Christmas Eve, after we ate Mom’s traditional Christmas supper, roasted pork, baked chicken, sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls with ground meat and rice), and mamaliga (corn mush with butter cooked in a cast iron pot), we went to the midnight service at the Orthodox Church not far from our house. Sometimes it was a sloshy trek and other times it was icy and slippery. If we got lucky, a heavy snow would turn our walk into a winter wonderland with dancing snowflakes shining in the weak street lights. We had to bundle up well – the church was not heated and we circled it three times during the procession with burning candles in our hands. I always wore my flannel pajamas under many layers of warm clothes. To this day, pajamas are my favorite garment – cozy and comfortable, keeping my body warm.
I decorate my Douglas fir with beautiful lights and shiny ornaments now. My heart fills with loving memories of Christmases past and of family members lost who made our Christian traditions so special.