Hang Them on the Tree
By Kedrick Rue
Talking my atheist parents into buying a Christmas tree was an endeavor that seemed doomed from the start. We didn’t celebrate this most commercial of holidays that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about”–my mother’s exact words—not with carols, not with presents, not with cookies.
It was all utter foolishness.
The Canyon in which I grew up was an unusual place, and within that place, we were an unusual family. For the most part we were a typical Eisenhower-era family, dragged into the late ’60s. My father wore button-down shirts and a sport coat to work every day. My mother was a housewife active in the PTA. She made my breakfast every morning, packed my lunch, and drove me to school. But they had been closet Communists at a time when it was the most dangerous thing to be, and were devout atheists in a country steeped in baby boomer Protestantism.
The Canyon wasn’t Christian; it was Pagan. There were the satyrs: horny old goats with connections to the record industry. There were the sylphs: groupies and junkies—often both—with long hair and flowing clothes. Every post-puberty man imagined himself as a Jim Morrison-style Dionysus, and every night was a bacchanal set to fuzzed out electric guitar, tablas, and harmonium.
But this was in the other houses. At our house, things had stalled out in 1961. Though my parents were tolerant of the general canyon culture, even as it became more and more hedonistic, they were never friends with most of our neighbors. We would loan them a cup of sugar or flour; we even once babysat a dog for a whole week. But my parents would never leave me with them; the one time this happened the girl they had hired to babysit ended up dancing naked in our living room after she thought I was asleep. Though dancing naked was okay in pagan rituals, it was not okay in a babysitting context. Still, my mother preferred the Pagan to the Christian.
But neither moved her when it came to getting a Christmas tree.
Her fatal mistake came through a choice of friends. My father was in a branch of the Industry, and was friends with a lot of the people in the Industry. I only met June Christy once, when I was about five. I remember her as being funny and beautiful, with a mischievous sense of humor. Because I only met her once, I thought that out of all my parents’ friends she was the most intriguing.
A few years later, when lobbying for a Christmas tree, I searched my house high and low for incriminating evidence that my parents, deep in their hearts, harbored that little twinkle of Christmas that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about” every December. The one crumb I was able to find was this album. And because June was a friend, I was allowed to listen to it.
The fortress had been breached. I was next able to convince my mother to make cookies (oatmeal raisin, a most un-Christmas-like cookie, as if even my mother’s baking were bearing a grudge against rampant consumerism and shallow religiosity). Then I was able to get her to buy me a gift—the Little Golden Book version of The Little Red Hen, because she liked its socialist message. Finally, I convinced her to bring a tree in from the back yard—a scrub pine I decorated with paper chains.
For that one year, I was satisfied in believing that we were just like everyone else.
I want to say that my mother’s heart grew three sizes that day. But instead she moved around the house like a caged thing, confined by the trappings of popular culture which had invaded our home. I still remember that tree as the bitterest of victories. And I also learned that there was very little—not a carol, not a cookie, not a tree—that could make us just like everyone else.
My mother stuck with the Canyon for the rest of her life, and she never fit in. But she wouldn’t have fit in anywhere. When she died I realized I could have resented her for imposing her way of life on me, but somehow I never did. Somehow I appreciated this perspective of difference, even through the bleakest years of high school.
As I was clearing out her things I found June Christy’s album. I listened to the song again for the first time in nearly two decades.
I’ll take the sorrows of last November
Make them a part of Christmas Day
Color them shiny, bright and gay
And hang them on the tree…
I still don’t have a tree in my house at Christmas—except for that one disastrous year when I dated a Pagan, which resulted in a number of broken hand-fired ornaments and a backyard bonfire—but I do have June’s song. It helps me to put the year, and the life behind me, in perspective.