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Greeley's Rancho Arcana

Christmas 1972: Buttering the Cheese

Part 6 of 6



So now we've examined all the key elements of our little Christmas tableau. Thanks for your patience and I hope you enjoyed the little trip here.

Let's go now to the year 1972 and begin the story:

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It's December. Thanksgiving is over and now we're moving on to that time of the year when a child's anticipation builds like a slowly inflating balloon at the carnival booth. The signs are everywhere. Chill air in the morning. Holiday carols and snowflake decorations in the stores. Bells, choirs, and crooners on the radio and TV. Calls and cards from relatives. Crafts at school. Lots of green and red. Toy stores and catalogs and lists and secret inventories of deeds both good and bad. It starts getting intense when neighborhood homes begin sprouting Christmas lights on the eaves like mushrooms; first a few here, then a few there, pretty soon everywhere. Each night the excitement builds and, despite what the clocks say, each day grows longer.

Yes, Christmas is coming. The time of year to renew one's inventory of Big Wheels, Wham-O Air Blasters, Frisbees, Tonka Trucks, board games, and all the other things now missing pieces or hopelessly modified beyond practical use. The children have accomplished a lot with last year's toys; they've learned how to use the Air Blaster to launch apricots, leaves, and dirt, they've successfully created the world's first tandem Big Wheel trike, and they've learned just how tough Tonka really is (not tough enough, sorry--failed the meteorite test). They need new materials to fuel their creative minds. Bring it on.

But this is not going to be one of the usual Christmas holidays. Before the year is out, all will learn something important about excessively tinkering with what is so. This is the year that tradition will be challenged on all fronts, with unexpected results.

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Mother announces one grey morning over the morning feed that she has a surprise for us this year. Are we going to Disneyland? No. Better than that. We're going to spend the holiday with Mother's friend Jeannie (not her real name) and her kids.

This sounds like fun. Jeannie is warm and fascinating, and adventure often follows whenever we all get together. It's kind of hard to avoid when you bring together enough children to form a baseball team and squeeze them inside a station wagon or house for any extended period of time. Something's bound to happen.

-I'll tell you about the bandages another day

Like Mother, Jeannie's raising a brood of children on her own, in a little postwar stucco shack on the westside of Los Angeles. She vaguely reminds one of Bonnie Raitt, if Bonnie Raitt wore indian braids and had a tribe of wild things for children.

You've probably met Jeannie, or someone just like her. She's one of those people who seems to be larger than she is and she easily fills a room with her presence. She smiles a lot and her eyes are soft, but her walk is all business, no play. The way she moves says quite clearly 'You pay attention now--Don't mess with me or you'll see snakes.' Some men secretly fear this kind of woman, but most children find her irresistible.

She has an indistinct southern accent and attitude, with honey and sugar in her voice. She also doesn't take crap from anyone and can focus her warmth or her ire like a laser beam in a crowded room. When she gets fired up, like Mother, she can smoke the ears off a longshoreman at 20 paces.

This skill is a by product of circumstance. If you're raising a bunch of kids on your own, there are times when you may find yourself simultaneously praising the sweet little three year old for her table manners, while blasting the damn ten year old for trying to shovel peas up the nose of the stupid seven year old. All in one sentence. When you can keep their names straight, you've achieved the rank of Sharpshooter. Jeannie's a pro and is probably the leader of a secret society of such women.

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We're game. It'll be a little like camping, with sleeping bags on the floor and big meals and shouting. Combining families for the holiday means all kids, all the time. This should make the days pass a little faster.

Then Mother drops the other shoe. We learn that this year Christmas will be a little different in another way, too. No shopping for trees this year.

No tree? NO TREE? How can you have Christmas without a tree? Has Mother lost her mind?

We learn that Jeannie has a tree made of metal. Aluminum, to be exact. A metal tree? A metal tree...I image a tree that looks like the hull of a green battleship, with rivets where the bulbs should be.

This is a major let-down. Mother may as well have said that the Easter Bunny is filling in for Santa this year, or that we're having chicken instead of turkey for Christmas dinner.

To grasp the depth of our disappointment, you need to understand that the annual tree hunt is part of a sacred family ritual. It involves marching around in a cold damp parking lot under buzzing florescent lamps and tinny music while my siblings play hide and seek among the trees. My job is to assist Mother, who grabs, shakes, and twirls each tree to attention like a drill instructor, pounding the base on the blacktop to remove loose needles and gnomes.

"How's this one? ... No? How about this one?...Key-rhyst, what did they get all over this tree...How's about...no, wait a minute; it looks like the clowns ran this one over a couple of times...geez, someone let a dog loose in here. What the hell is wrong with these people?...OK, how about this one?"

My job is to critique each tree, and each tree looks good to me. They always look good to me. I've developed the preference of seeing the possible versus seeing what actually is. Never mind that the half of the tree she can't see is missing a chunk in the middle big enough for a St Bernard. I see a good place to stick that model service station toy. Set it up like a tree house for cars. Maybe run some car track out of the tree. Add some lights. Yeah, sure, that tree looks real good, Mom. Let's get that one.

We'd drag our prize to the sullen cashier, pay for it, grab an inadequate amount of twine, then brazenly hog-tie the sucker in the street and shove it in the car like a pipe cleaner. All of us would jump in and find places to sit under and around the tree, shoving our arms through and getting sap and pine needles in our hair. Then, with the certainty of the righteous, we'd roar off into the night without being able to see a blessed thing. Kind of like a kidnapping, though it's not clear who's kidnapping who.

Inside, it looks, smells, and sounds like a giggling forest; outside, it looks like a desperate Christmas tree has taken a family hostage in a stolen car, hissing and careening beneath sinister streetlights down a rain-slicked road in a wild bid to join its fugitive brothers at points unknown, probably near the Mexican border.

No, this year, my critical eye will not be required and there will be no kidnapping adventure for tree or child. Instead, we're going to have a metal tree to fawn over. Boo.

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A week passes and the day arrives. It is dusk. We've spent the better part of the day poking around Jeannie's house, getting settled in, and have just finished eating an early dinner. Most of Jeannie's kids are visiting their father for dinner and will be coming home late. Tonight's the night to set up the tree and we get to do the honors, as we are the guests.

Everyone pitches in to clear a spot by front door where window is so neighbors can see the tree. One brother is obsessively pushing a vacuum around and making 'vroom' noises. Mother has stepped out to get some goodies.

Jeannie calls me over to the hall closet as she fishes out a slim white box from the top shelf. The box bears the legend "Evergleam Pom-Pom Permanent Tree." A six foot model. She hands it over to me as she reaches for another box containing a rotating metal stand. Wow. The tree spins? This might not be too bad. How fast does it spin--like a drill? No? Aww...

The box has a funky smell, like old magazines and perfumed clothes. I open it and see what appears to be dozens of sticks of beige dynamite with silver fuses. She leads me over to the appointed spot by the door, calls the rest of the children, kneels down with the boxes, and shows us how to set up the tree.

She digs through the dynamite, pulling out pieces of what looks like an old sliver broom-handle. These are screwed together, end to end, and then poked into the base. Then, watching our eyes, she holds one of the sticks of dynamite aloft, and with a magician's tug, reveals a frilly stem of sliver aluminum. It looks like something you might unplug a toilet with, but I keep this observation to myself. My siblings ooh and ahh. "OK, kids, your job is to take each one of these and stick them into the little holes in the stick." She demonstrates how easy this is by sticking the stem in the top of the broom handle. "See how easy that is?"

We look quietly at the lone stem jutting out from the top of the broom handle like a mutant Star Trek flower. This is a tree? We're supposed to get excited about THIS?

She reads our minds. "You'll see when we're done just how nice it really looks. You all get to work now and be careful, you little monkeys; you can cut yourself with these things. Don't you fool around," she says with a wag of her finger, and then she heads out to the garage to look for something.

We begin fooling around and learn that the stems of the tree make fine "bull stickers," or banderillas. Who wants to be the bull? Toro! Toro! A knitted throw blanket falls on the head of a brother and we spear him savagely. Not to worry. We're professionals. We've all heard and thoroughly tested that whole "you could put out an eye with that thing" routine so often that we know it's one of those myths like the bogie man. Just keep your eyes closed and you'll be fine. Watch out for the wall, Toro.

It's starting to seem like Jeannie might return so we prudently gather up all the stickers and begin poking them in broomstick, working our way up to the top.

We hear the back door slam and water running in the kitchen. Mother's back with some treats from the store. She comes out with her hands in a dish towel, sees the tree, parks a leg, and says with a sly smile that it's not too bad. Maybe we should buy one. She waits a second for our reaction, gets the requisite rolling eye and the Aw Mom, then goes over to the stereo console to put on an album. How about Jim Nabors? He plays that dopey Gomer Pyle guy but he actually can sing, too. Did you know that? He's got a nice voice. Sure, Mom. Go ahead.

We hear the opening to the Little Drummer Boy ease into the room and then a man we've never heard before starts singing into a barrel with a very deep voice. This is Gomer Pyle? Well...it's not too bad. Truth is, it starts to grow on you after a while. Why not. It's Christmas. Everyone can sing on Christmas. Mother adjusts the volume so she can hear it in the kitchen.

The tree is up. And it is ugly. Real ugly. Capital-U ugly. It lists to one side and some of the stem-quills are flattened out like a stomped-on tin can (Si? maybe we did that, Toro?) Our hearts are not quite where they ought to be. We don't know where this is leading, but it doesn't look good.

Maybe it will look better when we get the lights up in it--Mom, where are the lights for the tree? ...What? No lights? NO LIGHTS? This is even worse than we imagined! Are these people savages? Don't worry Honey, Jeannie's getting something that'll fix it all up. You'll see.

Jeannie comes back from the garage with cobwebs in her hair, dirt on her brow, and a filthy smashed box marked Penetray. She really had to dig to get this out. Some fool piled up all the lumber on top of it and it better not be broken because we're not going to run out and get another one tonight, thank you very much.

The box goes on the floor by the tree and out pops a color wheel lamp. So this is how we light the tree! This is starting to look kinda cool. Jeannie plugs it in and turns it on to check if the lamp still works. It does. She angles the lamp to the blank wall and we kids go-go dance with our shadows and Jim Nabors' Jingle Bells while Jeannie washes up.

Jeannie finally returns with all the boxes of ornaments. Ah, at least one tradition has been saved this year. We get to hang bulbs, elves, glow-in-the-dark icicles, ...and TINSEL! Yea!

Up go the ornaments. Mother brings out some treats and everyone pitches in while the music plays. In no time at all, we've covered the tree with all the gew-gaws and we're ready to put on the tinsel.

Tinsel is one of those things you love or hate. Like escargot, there's no in-between about it. My family loved tinsel; had an obsession with it, actually. Any tree-trimming job in our home was not considered complete until the tree was absolutely BURIED under tinsel.

Mother had thoughtfully gone out and bought boxes and boxes and boxes of the stuff, far more than needed for an aluminum tree. We went for it anyway. I seem to remember that this was carried forth in an attempt to make it look like a real tree. I know it sounds a little like buttering the cheese, but there's a logic to it. Really.

One brother does his drag routine with the tinsel. We lob tinsel with limited success onto the very top and it devolves into a tinsel fight with running and laughter. Finally, we're done. The tree looks like Cousin Itt. Half the globes and all the branches are fully buried and no longer visible. Tinsel touches the floor. Just right.

No lights yet, though.

"OK children, park your hineys on the floor and we'll turn on the lights!" Mother changes the album on the stereo, drops the needle with a thump, and turns it up in anticipation. Jeannie drags the color wheel lamp over to the tree, runs the cord behind it, plugs it into the wall, then takes her place by the wall switch next to the tree.

Lights dim down. Music on. All is ready for the magic of Christmas to begin.

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We children kneel close to the tree, hands in our laps, as children all around the world do on this magic night when the tree is finally set up. Our rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and gaping grins reflect our excitement. Christmas is almost here!

Andy Williams serenades us on the Zenith Console with "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

[ Don't remember the tune? Here's an embedded midi file --> ]    

'... Do you hear what I hear? (Hear-what-I-hear, hear-what-I-hear) ..."

Jeannie flipped the switch on the wall by the tree.

The tree and the light wheel slowly begin to hum loudly and spin. We discover that the tree stand contains a broken music box that clunks out a tune that may have been jingle bells once. Mother turns up the stereo higher to drown out the noise. It's getting a little loud.







"... Said the night wind to the little lamb ..."

The tree was beautiful, even if it was fake.

It was an interesting turn on the moral of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Charlie Brown passes up buying a fake aluminum tree for a pathetic live one, his friends ridicule him for his choice, but later they dress the crummy live tree and it becomes a thing of beauty after being treated with simple care. We've learned tonight that this kind of care works on fake trees, too. A minor miracle for all of us to remember; the magic inherent in this season of renewal works wonders in the hands and eyes of children, no matter the task. It is love that makes things beautiful, not the other way around.

"... Do you see what I see? (do-you-see-what-I-see) ..."

I remember looking up and seeing my mother and Jeannie smiling, clearly enjoying the rapture on our faces. Perhaps they were thinking ahead to Christmas day; the children circling the tree looking for names on packages, the laughter, the shrieks, the flying paper. Maybe they were recalling their own childhood memories of innocent wants and attainable needs, their first Christmas tree, or perhaps, with bittersweet tang, the faces of those no longer with us...

"... Way up in the sky, little lamb ..."

Of course, no one noticed that the color wheel cord was entangled in the branches of the slowly rotating tree ... and the lamp was being reeled in ... inch by inch...

"... Do you see what I see (do-you-see-what-I-see)? ..."


With no warning, the WHITE-HOT FURY OF THE ALMIGHTY RIPPED THROUGH THE TREE IN A CASCADE OF LIGHTNING, mere inches from our cherubic faces.

And the circuit fuse did not blow. Jacked with a copper penny? Holy Moses...

It's the tinsel carrying the current throughout the tree. Now we will pay for our excessive, tinkering ways...

You Are There:

"... A star, a star, - dancing in the night ... "

Children are on their backs, screaming, crying, desperately crab-walking on heels and elbows away from the twisting fountain of sparks.

"... With a tail as big as a kite ...

The room is awash with the sound of hornets and popcorn, terror and Andy Williams--the din and roar of the Apocalypse.

...With a tail as big as a kite ..."

Mother hops and squats, arms a flail; a crouching windmill dancing in a high wind.

"... Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy ..."


"... Do you hear what I hear? (do-you-hear-what-I-hear) ..."

Jeannie weaves, bobs, jumps and jabs, to and fro, vainly slapping the wall near the light switch.

"... Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy ..."


"... Do you hear what I hear? (do-you-hear-what-I-hear) ..."

The tree, with its Flaming Tongues of Eternal Truth, frenches the wall and ceiling with blue plasma. The screams grow louder and the fuse holds fast.

" A song, a song - high above the tree ...
... With a voice as big as the sea ..."

Did you know that melting aluminum has no particular odor?

"... With a voice as big as the sea..."

If you do smell something, it's often a surface coating.


Aluminum is actually quite safe for use in the home or office.


"... Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king ..."


"... Do you know what I know? (what-I-know, what-I-know) ..."

"...THE TOOL BOX?   ...  ?  ...  
           ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY? ...

"... In your palace warm, mighty king ..."


"... Do you know what I know? (what-I-know, what-I-know) ..."

I've often wondered what someone passing down the street might have seen and thought that night. You know the drill. 'Let's take the kids for a walk after dinner, go see all the lights.' Kids love that sort of thing...


Then they pass by Jeannie's house, and espy a bizarre ritual inside...screaming, jumping, praying, blue fire, loud music, babble and roar...


Hurmpf. Probably a Methodist home. Holy Rollers. There oughta be a law.


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The stores stopped selling these trees that year, I think. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was the changing tastes of the seventies. We'd landed on the moon, the space age was over, everyone was eating granola, and our carpets became furry green things to rake, not vacuum. Aluminum was out. Avocado was in. Someone made a decision somewhere, and now the aluminum trees were gone.

Perhaps that's the real underlying problem with Christmas that troubled Charlie Brown. Then and now, our holiday traditions are delivered to us on the store shelves, and the selection changes each year in order to entice one to buy more or to appease pop fashion. Here today, gone tomorrow, and it's often planned to be that way.

I think it's not really a matter of having 'right' or 'wrong' traditions; it's not even a matter of where you get them. It's a question of durability.

If this is the case, perhaps it's up to each of us to seek out that which we find durable to inform our traditions, based on our own values and our own unique families, no matter how others define any of those terms or what's on sale today. This point may seem minor, given the comforts of the herd and our disposable society, but I think it's important.

It's because these little rituals of the holidays anchor our childhood memories, and these are the memories that last a lifetime. These are also the memories that carry the seeds of what we come to hold dear and try to pass on to others.

Put another way, with spade in hand, childhood memory is the eternally fertile soil from which all meaningful traditions must take root and flower, in order to stand long enough to find renewal in gardens yet to be tilled by the following generation of children. It helps if you start with a healthy rootstock suited for your own particular fields and climate, and a meaningful calendar with which to plant by.

"... The Child, the Child - sleeping in the night ..."
"... He will bring us goodness and light ..."


"... He will bring us goodness and light ... "

I'm doing my part to make sure that my kids will have something to remember our holidays by, for a long, long time.

Yep. I've got plans. Maybe a new tradition to hang the family hat on. Let's check out Ebay...




Oh, in case you're still wondering, we lived. The house didn't burn down.

And the following year, we had the biggest evergreen on the block. Had to cut the top off the thing to get it in to the house.

Got Powdered Milk?


Thanks for stopping by.
!Feliz Navidad! - Nadolig Llawen! - Happy Holidays!