Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Acre Memory- Part 2

That being said and done the next day was tree decorating day.  A day I hated and feared.  We used the large bright bulbs with the old fashioned wiring.  It was my job to test the lights before trimming the tree.  The problem was that if one light went out the entire string went out.  Children of today have no idea how gifted they are to have the lights they do.  Each individual light had to be unscrewed and tested until the faulty perpetrator could be found.  On top of that, the lights would heat to a searing temperature that would burn the fingertips.  You could tell who had the job of being the light tester in each family because of the band-aids on each finger tip.  My mother demanded that there was an even distribution of colored lights.  The pattern had to be followed and could not be broken.  This often necessitated an emergency trip to the 5 and 10 to buy replacements.  That’s until she came upon what she thought was an ingenious idea.  If she had too many blues and not enough red, she would scrape the blue paint off of one bulb and using red nail polish she’d paint the scraped bulbs.  Now if you don’t believe in guardian angels this may convince you.  As I said the bulbs would literally burn at a very high temp and using the nail polish only a Christmas miracle saved us from the vapors of the nail polish igniting the dried out tree into a Christmas bonfire.  One often picked up a copy of the Lowell Sun to find that a home was burnt to the ground because of faulty wiring and a dried out tree.  I was constantly reminded of this since it was my duty to climb under the tree daily and fill the reservoir.  And if the house was to burst into flames it would have been all my fault.

Some of my friends had those new sparkling aluminum tree with the color wheel that spun around.  Their ornaments were the fancy, Styrofoam ones wrapped in colored silk thread.  Not us, we had old fashioned glass ornaments, some 10, 15, or 20 years old.  There were delicate glass strawberries , enormous red balls, beautifully painted shapes that mirrored the colored lights.  We had some very old ones from memere’s.  I especially remember a little cloth Santa that had its place on the tree.  The icicles.  We had dozens of these hard plastic white icicles that were placed ever so gingerly on the tips of the branches.  Then came the tinsel.  They don’t even sell tinsel any more.  I think it was one of the causes of global warming.  My mother bought boxes of it.  I would throw gobs of it at the tree.  In frustration my mother would tell me to leave as she went about adding her piece de resistance.  Every individual strand had to be placed just right.  In my memory I can see it now the entire tree shimmering and shining, the tinsel making the tree look like an ice glazed wonder.  The star we used was another ancient piece dating from WWII period.  It was white with a slight outline in red.  When a bulb was inserted in the base the glow was soft and tranquil and set the perfect image of peace on earth, goodwill towards men.  All of that was so until the cat ate a piece of tinsel and we had to pull it out of her rear, or until my mother would topple into the tree as she was trying to perfect her already perfect tree.

While the tree was the focus of our decorating frenzy there were other additions to our attempts of making our Christmas Wonderland.  Probably the first sign of the season to appear would be the wreath on the door.  Today’s Martha Stewart hyper stylized self important foo foo wreaths paled in comparison by what hung on the doors along Broadway Street.  There were the white tissue paper wreaths that were made from bent coat hangers with dozens of tiny torn pieces of tissue wrapped around the form.  The good Sisters at Saint Patrick School began the project early in the season.  By early December students brought them home in many stages of completion.  Some homes displayed full rich wreaths that must have taken a tree’s worth of tissue paper to fill.  Other looked half done and hung sadly from a nail.  The worst tragedy is if we had a wet snow and then dozens of toilet paper wreaths met their doom.  On other doorways wreaths were made of folded computer cards (which was accompanied by the infamous folded TV Guide Christmas tree that matched).  Of course there was the economical plastic wreath that barring a nuclear explosion could last in a state of preservation into the next millennium.  One of my mother’s pride and joys was the gold sprayed pine cone wreath made by my Aunt Nita.  It was by far the largest and most luxurious of wreaths in the neighborhood.  It lasted many years and even though each year one or another of the pine cones would fall off or disintegrate it hung until it breathed its last many years later.

It seemed almost every family put electric candles in the windows.  The meaning of this ancient sign of welcome may have been unknown to the residents of the Acre but the effect it made on the snow-covered streets was spectacular.  Almost everyone used orange or red.  That may have been one of those unwritten rules of Christmas that was enforced by peer pressure.  Those who could afford it may even have a 3 candle candolier.  Soon followed the 5, then 7 candle condoliers showed up in widows  Even in the 1960s people tried to outdo their neighbor.  There were always the renegades who used blue or white lights, or even God forbid multi-colored lights!  The ladies of the tenement neighborhood would remark that while everyone in the block had orange Mrs. So-and-so wanted to defy standards and put green bulbs in her electric candles.  Soon enough the malcontent would do her penance and change her bulbs to the right color.  Peace was restored to the Acre. 

Stamps must have been far cheaper in that era because the Christmas card was a major decorating item in that period.  The mailman often made two trips to the mailboxes and even worked on the Sunday before Christmas.  Lord knows who sent all those cards, but we received dozens if not many dozens of Christmas cards.  I had no idea who many of the cards were sent by.  They were cousins of cousins and then there was the frantic, “Oh my God I didn’t send one to them!!!”  This was followed by a mad dash to the mail box in front of Dostaler’s Market.  With tape in hand my sister and I would line every door jamb with the season’s greetings.  “Be sure the horizontal cards were along the top and the verticals went along the side.”  It was a contest with my cousins who had the most cards hanging.

In between the living room and the “good” room was always displayed the red paper tissue folded bell.  These were inexpensive items that were picked up easily at the local Woolworth’s, Kressge’s, or Green’s. Other items of décor included an illuminated Santa with a bubble light in his hand.   Again, I have no recollection where the item came from or why poor Santa carried a bubbling light bulb in his hand but the Santa was used as a night light on the kitchen table during the season.  My sister had the Frosty the Snowman light.  With a blue bulb inserted in the back it was just like a real snowman, that in your dreams may come alive and march through the house.  I never liked that figure.  My mother also bought 4 Santa Claus mugs from Stuart’s Department Store on Market Street.  As the years passed the poor Santas lost their paint until finally he looked like a victim of the plague.  Advent calendars were opened daily revealing little pictures as the big day approached.  Every now and then my mother would buy one that when the window was opened there was a Bible verse.  Why would someone put Bible verses on Advent calendars?  The meaning was lost on an 8 year old boy.


  1. Enjoyed part 2 of your "Acre Christmas Story" David! Your mom and mine were similar in their striving for perfection. Remember well how the testing and untangling the lights took so much of the initial joy out of process of decorating the tree. Thankfully we were saved from the fumes of the nail polish. For a time we did switch over to the aluminum tree with the rotating wheel, but we still used the same ornaments. In fact, I still possess many of these same family ornaments and put them on our tree today. So now when one breaks it is like losing an old friend. Merry Christmast! Nollaig Shona Dhuit

  2. Middlesex Village checking in: each piece of tinsel hung, one by one, with great care for the final bit of magic, always on a freshly cut tree. The night before Christmas, in a living room only lit by the tree lights and the electric candles in the two windows, parents sipping coffee, my sister and I home made egg nog, listening to Christmas music. Sharing snippets of hopes and dreams in most low key way. Wonderful night. LHS 59

  3. You are bringing back so many memories! To make our tree look better, my father sawed off a branch, made a hole in the trunk with his drill and stuck the branch in its new spot. My mother would take the tinsel off the tree and save it for the next year.

    1. For years I thought my Dad was the only one to cut branches and re-position them else where in the Tree by drilling a hole in the Trunk...Oh My Memories...... <3

  4. I probably walked up and down Broadway looking at your lights for years and years!