When I was a child, my parents, brother, and I used to draw names to see for which person we were responsible for buying stocking presents. I always used to hope that my dad would draw my name because Dad’s form of stocking stuffers were six packs of sodas, bags of candy, all the junk food that I shouldn’t eat because I was a chubby kid. But Dad knew my weaknesses and indulged in them shamelessly.
I never wanted my brother. Because he and I were fighting constantly at that time, getting my brother’s name was three steps away from falling into a nightmare. I just didn’t know what to get him and the idea of actually asking him…well, at the time, I’d rather pull glass shards out of an infection than try to ask my brother what he wanted for Christmas.
That and the whole stocking Santa person thing was supposed to be a secret so, once more, the idea of talking to Peter to find out what he wanted was not feasible.
Now, before you think that I hate my brother, I don’t. And I’m talking about a memory that’s close to thirty years-old. We have changed, thank God, and I actually enjoy talking with my brother. I’m just not that good at it sometimes. But that’s another story for another day.
When I was in first grade, we moved to Germany. And when I was in second grade, Mom took Peter and me to a German craft store and we made all kinds of decorations that year. Mom learned how to do ceramic molding and she would pore the ceramic slip into the plastic relief mold and let it wait. And wait. And wait. And then, once it was set and dry (I think), she would pop the decoration out of the mold and then we would paint it.
I remember painting Christmas ornaments that year as well. They were little German wooden ornaments, an angel on a rocking horse. A nutcracker. Figure skaters. A bird house with a parent bird feeding the baby bird. The angel was always my favorite. I might have been allowed to paint her. I don’t remember. I believe my brother painted the nutcracker whom I always saw as the soldier that protected all of the other ornaments. And, in my daydreams and stories that I spun by the hour, the nutcracker and the angel were in a relationship.
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a romantic at heart. Just don’t tell anyone. It’ll ruin my mean and evil reputation that I have taken a lot of time to foster.
Starting from that moment, I associated Christmas and my mother with ornaments. And, now that I think about it, I think I have always associated my mom with her ornament collection, specifically, the German wooden ones. The average plastic ornaments, the glass balls, these would stay packed up in the Christmas box year-round. But the German ornaments, when we moved back to America, those would stay in a special German wood-birdhouse that I designed and my lovely father built.
And, in that simple birdhouse, I spun out my ornaments stories for years. I still remember, roughly, the set up of the house and what ornament was in what role.
Funny…I have barely thought about those many hours I spent at the birdhouse, playing with the ornaments, for years. But they connected me back home to Germany. Holding them, smoothing down the hair on the top of the witch’s head (she was a good luck symbol in Germany), making sure the chimney sweep had his ladder and brushes….those were the moments when I wasn’t in suburbia Northern Virginia. Those were the moments when I was still in the 303 C-2 apartment in Munich, Germany.
So, anyhow, about thirty years ago, I pulled Mom’s name for stockings and I had it set. I had started working and had some money set aside….I was ready.
I had discovered the joys of Hallmark and their plastic ornament collection.
Now, they might not have been as sentimental or as wonderful as the German ornaments that were such a huge part of my childhood. But, at that point, I was sixteen and I was too old to play with ornaments any more. I won’t go so far to suggest that I was too sophisticated, just too old.
But I was never too old to reap huge amounts of joy from watching my mother open her presents and listen to her coo with pleasure. Mom is really great about enjoying her gifts. She’ll examine each one and talk about how wonderful it is. God, I love that woman.
So, that year, all of her gifts were ornaments. Because if one is great, then about two dozen (maybe more…I’m not exaggerating) must be excruciatingly wonderful.
I bought her anything I thought she might remotely think was cute. I bought her Hallmark ornaments ranging from Opus riding on an ice cube to little mice babies sleeping in a box of crayons. I bought her ceramic carousel horses because, by that point, I was operating the carousel at Accotink park and was painting them now that the winter had arrived.
I bought her glass ornaments.
Possibly wooden ornaments.
Each ornament was going to have its own special story. I might have thought I was too old to tell stories about the ornaments, but I couldn’t resist the idea of going once more under and into the Christmas tree and just pretending.
That year, my favorite ornament that I bought Mom was a plastic donkey wearing a sombrero and carrying a bristly Christmas tree. Peeping out of the saddle bag was a present bearing the words Feliz Navidad. I was silly and innocent and ignorant to think that this was supposed to be the donkey’s name.
I loved that donkey. In some respects, it replaced the angel whose paint was no longer shiny and had been chewed on by a dog and whose red thread reign had slipped from her fingers. I don’t know why I loved that donkey so much. It wasn’t because Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem.
The donkey’s head is kipped to the side, and it seems to be thinking of its own private thoughts, like it has a pleasant secret going on in its mind. If you look up the ornament on google (be sure to include the words donkey or you’ll see a hideous piñata ornament), you won’t see the tilt in the head.
But I put the donkey up on my Christmas tree last night. About sixteen years ago, my mother’s mother was dying. After nearly ten years of suffering from Parkinson’s, Grandma Jay was nearing her final hours. A couple of weeks after Christmas, Grandma Jay went to Heaven. My mother was there; she had flown from Germany where she was working full time to be with her mother as she came to the end of her life.
I will never forget my mom calling me, telling me that Grandma Jay’s “piano fingers” had finally relaxed. My grandmother was a brilliant pianist; she used to teach piano lessons. But Parkinson’s robbed her of this, robbed her of her dignity, robbed her of the flexibility of even pretending that she could still run her fingers along the keyboard and coax out a song.
Shortly after Grandma Jay passed, Mom started sending me her ornament collection. Ten at a time. She asked me which ones I really wanted. And I told her about the donkey, with its head tilted to the side, thinking about its own private joy of carrying Mary, of carrying my Lord and Savior to His birthing place.
I think Mom was a bit surprised that I hadn’t asked for the German ornaments, the angel, the nutcracker. But I loved that silly donkey that didn’t really fit on our Christmas tree. We weren’t Latin-American. The only Spanish I had learned was from Sesame Street.
When I got my first box of ornaments, I dug through the paper voraciously, searching for Feliz Navidad. And there he was, wrapped up in bubble wrap. The wiry Christmas tree is still glued into his back. His sombrero is still sitting awkwardly behind his ears, the chinstrap pulled so tightly that it looks like he might be getting strangled.
But I cupped him in my hands, much like last night when I cupped him again. Just like I have cupped him year after year for nearly fifteen years. My children know that, for no apparent reason, it’s one of my favorites and won’t put it on the tree. They give it to me and step back.
But in putting the little donkey on the tree, I put up my childhood. I put up my stories that I used to tell myself when I was a girl. I put up the Christmas when I was my mother’s stocking Santa and the Hallmark at Tyson’s Corner was having a ludicrously great sale and I bought her a plastic donkey because I loved his own, personal, secret smile.
I love Christmas. I love that silly donkey. I love the quiet that comes at night when I turn off the main lights and turn on the Christmas tree lights and stare at the various ornaments with all of their stories about why I have them or how I received them.
And I always make sure to put my little plastic donkey close to the top, where I used to put my favorite angel. Because being at the top means that it’s the most important. It’s closest to the star. It’s closest to Heaven.
And I always put it so that when I sit in my favorite recliner and ignore the television, I can still see my donkey from where he’s hidden among the tree’s branches.