Kage Baker always felt there was a magic tip-point for Christmas. There was, she felt, a point in the proceedings where one suddenly felt “Christmas-y”. It had little to do with the the amount or quality of decorations, or presents, or even doing Dickens Fair – it was, rather, a magical energy that potentiated without warning somewhere between December 1st and 25th.
The weather had a lot to do with it, I think. Like a chrysanthemum, Kage needed some exposure to the cold and dark before she bloomed for the winter. A warm December left her drooping, no matter how picture-postcard perfect the California skies might be. You know those old fruit crate labels, showing an orange grove under a sunny sky with snow-capped mountains in the distance? Where we grew up, on the edge of the San Fernando Valley, it actually looked like that in the 1950’s – but unless there was the occasional north wind or a bit of frost, Kage just never felt like Christmas was coming.
At her ancestral halls in the Hollywood Hills, 50-odd steps led from the street to the front door, flanked by terraces and concrete urns. When the steps went glassy or the water in the urns froze – and some years they did – then Kage was automatically in a Yuletide mood. We might have had oranges and lemons ripening in the yard – and some years they did that, too – but the touch of ice in the air was enough for Kage.
Lights had a lot to do with it, too. We didn’t always manage to get many lights up, though I don’t think there was a year when we went totally without … I remember my first year away from home, when Kage and I decorated a foot-tall pine bough with one string of lights, 7 bulbs long. There were two red, two green, two blue and an odd orange one. It was all we could afford, and all that would have fit on our midget tree, anyway. We had ornaments, though – boxes of free ones from the Santa Claus impersonator whose sleigh Kage and Mama had spent the summer painting – and my 1-room apartment was so tiny that just those 7 lights filled it with corruscating glory.
The outside lights were always important – at their greatest reach, they covered all four edges of the cottage in Pismo Beach; we blazed like a light house. But the heart of the deco was always the tree; a real tree, unflocked and smelling of wild woods, ever since that dwarf specimen the year we left home …
Over the years, the trees got bigger and the ornaments got stranger – purchased one by one, no two were alike and almost none of them were just round. Kage preferred the old-fashioned German kind, of silvered and painted glass: so we had a pickle and a walnut (with squirrel) and a malted milk; a basket of roses, a hot air balloon, a Martian squeeze doll, a sea horse, a model-T and a pink Cadillac and several ingenuously phallic rockets. There were a whole flock of odd birds, several deformed but lovely teapots, a cable car, a lily, a few goddesses, half a dozen kinds and queens of England plus the Red Queen from Wonderland. There was a clock face with no hands.
There had to be bubble lights. And some of the ordinary ones had to blink. Not all of them, not whole strings! Just a few, to lend an uneven twinkle to the gleam.
You could spend hours studying the panoply of wonders in those Christmas trees; Kage did. And that, I think, was what most reliably put her in “the Christmas mood” – the glittering, blinking glory of the tree. Even years when there were no presents under it (which sometimes happened), the tree itself was all the gift required to make her eyes light up as well.
I can’t claim to be feeling all that Christmas-y myself, this year. I miss Kage more dreadfully than I can describe; especially as last year she was so very, very ill … but the nights have been adequately cold and dark this month, and the lights have gone up on schedule. There are green boughs and twinkling lights in the living room, and the front porch is a nebula in the night.
The balance is teetering in the solstice wind. I may tip over yet.
Tomorrow: Christmas Eve