Braille Monitor                                                    December 2009

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Christmas Recollections

by Mary Ellen Gabias

The Christmas tree and secret Santa gifts at the National Center for the BlindFrom the Editor: Mary Ellen Gabias and her husband and four children live in Calogna, British Columbia. She is a longtime Federationist, who has been sharing her insights about blindness with Braille Monitor readers for many years. This is what she has learned from trimming Christmas trees:

I’ve learned a lot about blindness from reading NFB speeches and from discussions with friends. But I’ve come to realize my deepest learning has resulted from moments seemingly unrelated to blindness.

Who would think the events surrounding our Christmas tree could teach so much about blindness and about living in a family? Our childhood Christmas tree ritual was unvarying. After the annual family party hosted by the parents of blind children in Toledo on the last Sunday before Christmas, Mom and Dad drove all five of us sugar-hyped children to the lot where a local charity sold Christmas trees. Mom and Dad decreed the price we would pay. My siblings argued vociferously about the aesthetic appeal of long versus short needles. I applied the sniff test. If a tree smelled good, it was all right with me.

Before the advent of commercial Christmas tree stands–devices designed to promote domestic tranquility–we plunked the tree in a bucket while Dad fabricated supports to hold it in place. By the time the tree was standing straight with the inevitable bare spot facing the corner where it wouldn’t show (or at least not much), we all understood why the Christmas promise of peace on Earth and good will toward men continues to elude humanity.

The world owes a profound debt to the inventor of modern Christmas tree lights with each bulb on an individual circuit. Earlier strings of lights operated from a continuous circuit. If one bulb burned out, the whole string was useless. My brothers and sister spent hours of frustration and tedium finding the precise bulb that had put a string of lights out of commission. I learned quickly to stay out of the way until the lights were finally shining.

I come from the find-an-empty-spot-and-stick-an-ornament-there school of tree decorating. One of my brothers agreed. We cheerfully hung bulbs and treasured family ornaments wherever we could reach. Mom and another brother believed in order and balance. They followed behind us, rearranging what we’d done so that colors and types of ornament were distributed according to a plan. To avert potential wrangling, Mom assigned each of us a task. One child hung all the balls. Another hung the homemade ornaments. Mom hung the delicate items. I put wire hangers or thread loops on any ornament needing them. Then I looked for a bare spot and asked the members of the family who cared about balance if the ornament in question fit into their aesthetic plan. At the end I hung the icicles.

I’ve never seen icicles like ours on any other tree. Other people had crystal icicles. Ours were plastic, but they looked like ice and were shaped like the icicles that hung from trees and fences after an ice storm. Mom bought them for her first Christmas as a new bride, and I made her tell the story every year. My brothers thought I was a little silly, but those icicles came to symbolize Christmas for me. Even after I was an adult living far from my family home, Mom would save the icicles for me to put on the tree when I arrived home for Christmas.

Nobody made any pronouncements about blindness during our annual ritual. Certain things were simply understood. Everybody had a role to play. Dad and the boys got the tree up while Mom and my sister told them whether it was straight. Dad supervised the stringing of the lights while Mom fixed supper. Then Dad sat back and stayed out of the way while the rest of us did the decorating. Blindness didn’t keep me from participating; it did affect how I participated.

Decorating a tree is such a family thing. When I moved away from home, I never bought a tree. I always spent Christmas with my family; why bother with a tree in an apartment that would be empty on Christmas anyway?

Paul and I were married in January, 1989. Like me, he traditionally spent Christmas with his family. In 1988, with our wedding less than two weeks away, we decided to spend our first Christmas together at my apartment in Baltimore. Paul is a university professor; at the time of our marriage he was teaching in Colorado. He arrived in Baltimore on December 22. We went shopping for our first Christmas tree on the way home from the airport. The pickings are pretty slim three days before Christmas. We did our best, but the tree that we finally strapped to the roof of Mary Ellen Thompson’s car belonged in a Peanuts holiday special, not a living room.

Our Federation friends came to the rescue. Someone loaned us a spare tree stand. John Cheadle led the crew that tied the tree up to a hurriedly installed bracket in the corner. Without the rope to keep it in place, the curved trunk was in danger of toppling. We bought strings of lights, and people began arriving, bearing ornaments as gifts. Even the Cheadle children got into the act; their homemade ornaments continued to hang on our trees every year for more than a decade. I brought out the food and hot cider, the tree was quickly trimmed, and its peculiar shape was forgotten in the fun of that impromptu party. Then, on Christmas morning, I opened a box of crystal icicles sent by my sister. Christmas was complete.

By the next year we were living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. We invited Paul’s university colleagues to a tree-trimming party. Once again we provided the food, and our friends ceremoniously hung the ornaments they had brought and told stories about their own Christmas tree experiences. It was a wonderful way to connect with people we were coming to know.

Visiting assistant professors lead a nomadic life. After one year in Fredericton, Paul accepted a position in Kelowna, British Columbia. By the Christmas of 1990 there were three of us. Joanne couldn’t walk, but at ten months she crawled very efficiently. We decided to build a barricade to protect the tree and keep her safe. We also chose not to have a tree-trimming party.

I don’t remember how we got the tree home and who helped us ensure that it was standing straight. I do remember Paul checking every light bulb on every string of lights and attaching the strings to the branches. “Wouldn’t it be better to get someone sighted to do that?” “How will you know if the lights are spaced correctly and look right?” All my assumptions rose to the surface.

“What’s so difficult about wrapping lights around a tree?” Paul asked me. “You can feel whether a branch has a light on it. You just have to be systematic.”

Before I began hanging ornaments, I had someone check. Paul was right. I found I could use the same principle for hanging ornaments. I asked my reader to check my work; I’d missed a few spots and made others too crowded, but the needed changes were really very minor.

Our family Christmas tree stories are every bit as human as the ones I lived in my childhood. We bought a tree the Christmas Paul’s mother died, but neither of us had the heart to decorate it. It stood bare in our home as a reminder of the hope that comes with Christmas.

Nobody got around to decorating the tree the year Jeffrey was born at home on Christmas Eve, either. One year our tree came home in a taxi. Big Al, the cab driver, teased us for years about how long it took him to get all the needles out of his car.

Whenever toddlers were in our home, my decorating principle was simple: block off the tree to prevent unauthorized climbing and put only unbreakable ornaments near the bottom.

No matter how earnestly we might have wanted to recreate idyllic Christmases from famous pictures, we had finally to accept that Norman Rockwell never had to deal with real children. Paul found a wood lot where we could choose our tree and cut it down ourselves. What a wonderful tradition for the children! While Paul cut the tree the children had chosen, they complained about the cold and asked where to find the bathroom. Now we choose our trees at a local nursery, where hot apple cider is never far away.

Family history seems to be repeating itself. Paul and the children choose the tree. Now that they’re older, they help him set it up, and everyone has something to say about which way to turn it to hide the inevitable bare spot. The children check for burned out bulbs and help their father string the lights. As they get older, Dad’s role in this part of the project diminishes. I mediate decorating disputes between the order-and-balance contingent and the find-an-empty-spot-and-stick-an-ornament-there crowd. To this day the icicles are mine.

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