When I was a kid, we had a Lincoln Log manger with Woolworth’s figures making up the bulk of the characters. I don’t know if the manger itself was a craft project or store bought1. Either way, not true to the architecture of the time of Jesus’ birth and definitely not regionally accurate. Spoiler: Abe Lincoln was not at the birth of Jesus.
We’d ceremoniously unwrap the manger and all the figures from the paper towels that had been wrapped around the figures to protect them. The figures were vintage even when I was a kid. Some of the figures looked hand-painted. Definitely antique territory:
The unboxing and setup of the manger marked the beginning of the holidays even more than the Christmas tree. There were ceramic or plaster figures of the main cast members, including a couple of animals in the donkey / ass 2 / mule family, and a weird wax candle angel3 that was displayed on the top of the manger every year. There were also two or three pine tree candles with silver glitter sprinkled to look like snow or ice. The trees had never been lit, which in my pyro obsessed family of six kids, was its own Christmas Miracle.
As time passed, the manger started looking tired and Christmas started to become a massive cottage industry. My mom’s catering business was doing ok and with some of her money, she started acquiring “Dickensian” village homes that had a light bulb inside to make them glowy and happy. The years that she started this collection coincided with my own years in England as a Mormon missionary. The England I saw in Manchester and Lancashire was nothing remotely close to the fantasy housing estate my mom had built over the two Christmases I was gone. Also, the Dickens period of England included poor houses, child labor and a massive class division between the wealthy and the poor. The village was a 20th century Christmaswashed crock.
My nephews and neices began to refer to my childood home as The Christmas House and I think this helped my mom expand the decorations. At one point, we had 3 large trees, 2 of which were artificial and used in the catering business and 4 smaller, wall-mounted half trees. Not to mention garlands everywhere; bannister, mantels, door transoms and cabinet tops. Everywhere.
Before you start to judge me as down on Christmas, or even down on the commercialization of Christmas, you should know a few things. I loved every single Christmas of my childhood. Loved. Great memories shared with my family and friends. On Christmas Eve, as we got older, we would read non-biblical holiday stories like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. We always read the New Testament account of the birth of Jesus and later amended it to included Book of Mormon passages talking about the birth. Even in my apostate days, I never minded the reading of the stories because it was the one time of the year we could all be in a room together and there wasn’t an argument about Nixon / Ford / Carter / Reagan / a Bush / a Clinton or Utah politics and how involved the LDS church was in whatever hot-button legislation of the day. No arguments about how messed up Brigham Young University was in any number of ways.
Still, Jesus. I loved those Christmases in that house.
* * *
While I was in England, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it. I was called in to the mission office where I found this out. At that very moment, my father was in surgery. I was told I should be back in the office later that day to have a call alone with my family. My father survived the surgery and my family encouraged me to stay in England and finish my mission time. I won’t lie about how difficult it was, but as a 19 year-old trying to go all in on the Mormon way, it seemed a noble thing to do. I’d like to think I made the right call, that my family made the right call.
When I returned after my scheduled mission time, 9 months after my dad’s surgery, I realized that I would only have a short time with him and that I needed to reevaulate my post-mission plans. Four months after I returned from England, my dad passed away. I didn’t get that last Christmas with my dad.
* * *
When I was a kid, I would wonder, not often enough to be weird but often enough that I can remember doing it, what life would be like without either my father or mother, never thinking that I would lose either one of them before I had started my own family. Those thoughts where of little help when I was facing this as a young man trying to get his footing in the world. I realized then, that my parents did a lot to make the holidays special. Each Christmas was an event.
That first year without my dad, as Christmas approached, I didn’t want the sadness of losing him to ruin the holidays, especially for my nieces and nephews. I felt that I owed it to them to try to honor my dad by remembering what it was that he brought to Christmas. I asked my mom about it and she surprised me by apologizing that Christmases might be more different going forward without my dad and not just because he was gone. When I asked why, she said, “Because he was the one who made Christmas fun.”
This was a shocker. My mom was the one with the Santa collection. She was the one who, by 3pm the day after Thanksgiving, had pulled out the Christmas decorations and would begin the Hanging of the Garlands down the staircase of the 100 year old Victorian house. She was the reason my nieces and nephews called our house The Christmas House. That my dad was the fun one? Bull. Shit. No way.
Then I played back all the cool things I had received for Christmas. And there were a lot of cool things. I was extremely lucky. I played back all the favorite gifts. Sweet two wheeled pedal bike that looked like a minibike? The first Magnavox Odyssey? First and second remote controlled cars? 10-band graphic EQ for my stereo? CB Radio? The one with a phone-style handset? And a ridiculously giant antenna that we put in our attic? Mattel® Sizzlers? Massive LEGO set with the motor unit?
They were all him.
* * *
My mom sold herself short, because she quickly became the fun Grandma who gifted things like Super NES and Sega Genesis consoles and games and paid to take us all to a holiday movie. When I was young, we didn’t see movies on Christmas. We stayed in and played together.
Before you think I’m doing my own Christmaswashing, you should know that among all those great Christmas memories of abundance, there lives the memories of my parents arguing over:
- Tree species, color and size
- Which vendor and which date to purchase the tree
- Securing methodologies for getting the tree home on top of one of the station wagons
- Precise GPS coordinates of the tree in the living room
- Its X/Y/Z rotational axis alignment to look good inside the house and if you looked in through the window from the street; this was one of the things that made A Christmas Story so identifiable
- Where to cut the bottom of the tree to achieve desired coordinate placement
- How many shims to attach to the wooden stand that came with the tree; there was no fancypants stand.
All of these were before the tree lights were involved and do not include the heated words during the Flock Years. For the uninitiated, flocking a tree was not prepurchased back then. If you wanted a flocked tree, you had to do it yourself. This added an extra level of planning and execution as the flocking process was done by my dad, outside in the frozen hellscape of winter, with a garden hose 4 attached to a plastic tank and nozzle that held chemicals that would put fake snow on the tree and keep it there for a few weeks. As a sidenote, The Flock Years and the eventual Flock Accord both abolished flocking and established permanent species of tree, removing it from consideration and in theory, reducing argument decibel level and minutes spent arguing over species every year.
Christmas was a BFD at my house. And I liked it that way. All the arguing was worth it when you raced down the stairs on the 20th of December to plug in the tree lights and look at the tree in the morning darkness and wonder about the family gifts already there, the ones that were coming and those Santa was going to bring. Worth every second of arguing. The tree always looked magnificent to my childhood eyes. And seeing it like that before school started just made the anticipation for Christmas morning so much sweeter.
* * *
My mom had the Dickensian village set up. Not only were there more houses, but villagers! Villagers, some of whom were singing! It was over the top and I decided something had to be done. If my dad wasn’t around to make Christmas fun, by God, I would. I didn’t have this realization until December 22nd or so. It was close to Christmas. Close enough that I was panicked. I drove to the nearest mall and purchased:
- Two dollar-store-grade Ninja nunchucks and sword combo packages
- One Moss Man™ character5 from the He Man® cartoon series
- I may have purchased a new Gumby and Pokey; less for Christmas than just to add delight and weirdness
- One poseable, semi-articulated Godzilla, sized small
I gave the ninja stuff away, sneaked Moss Man™ in my stocking on Christmas Eve as a help to Santa. 6
Godzilla? I put Godzilla front and center in the Dickens village, attacking the carolers. It was glorious while it lasted. Which may have been about 45 minutes, given my Mom’s pride about the village. That thing was set up in the entryway to the house. What we referred to as The Front Hall. Which made it sound like Versailles. It was not then, nor now, part of Versailles. Still, the village was one of the first things visitors would see. The village was 12 houses, all lit up, with terrain. People needed to see that Godzilla had plenty to do and a good food supply.
That year, Godzilla did not live front and center. The decision to even keep Godzilla in the village proper was not without some negotiation. My mom was concerned that the nephews and nieces, many of whom were younger and came year after year to spend Christmas Eve at the Christmas House, might be scared by a time traveling Godzilla, bent on destroying an untrammeled fantasia of Dickensian England as portrayed via a 1980s schmaltz lens. I’m paraphrasing. Bottom line: she didn’t want Godzilla in the village. I argued that maybe a bit of Godzilla-level reality wouldn’t hurt. I may have asserted that the carolers didn’t seem to mind as they were clearly oblivious to an irradiated prehistoric amphibious reptile who could shoot lasers from his eyes, a freeze or hot ray from his mouth and who was, very clearly, a major threat to the villagers and their completely delusional way of life.
I lost. Godzilla was removed from the front line and instead, positioned in the rear as if he were merely sizing up the village for attack. This less threatening positioning was a tenuous compromise and one that did not stand. I may have enacted a few attack scenarios to children visitors and I may have even re-situated Godzilla back up front from time to time, particularly on those days when I knew we’d have grownup guests. My mother took to referring to him as “that damn Godzilla”, but I didn’t care. Damn Godzilla had to eat and carolers were the nearest food. Damn Godzilla was awesome. And fierce.
Godzilla in the illuminated Dickensian Christmas Village was a hit! He garnered quite a lot of interest from anybody who made it to the Armstrong house that year. And it accomplished exactly what I wanted: made a potentially very sad Christmas fun, even without my dad.
* * *
In successive years, my Mother retained Godzilla, claiming that he had become welcomed by the villagers and instead of wanting to eat them, was actually joining them in caroling. She would position him in various non-threatening locations in the village, but for the first few years, I would move him to a starring position, one befitting his magnificence and the whole alternate reality my mother concocted was never part of the true Christmas Godzilla canon. Godzilla would eat anybody, any time. It was Dickens’ England after all.
Every Christmas season thereafter, when we would talk about Christmas plans and arrival times, mom would invariably announce that her tree was up, the village arranged and Godzilla placed. When she passed away a couple of years ago, there was a lot of talk about Christmas Godzilla and where he would live. I pushed very hard that Godzilla had become a part of the village and that whoever took the village would have to take Godzilla as well. Further, the village owner would have to grant, in perpetuity, prime positioning for Godzilla in the village.
This is from my younger sister, just last week:
- Informed by my oldest sister that the manger was made by my two older brothers; my oldest actually cutting the logs and the felt roof was glued on by my mom.
- I use ass here because the bible used ass. It’s not a swear.
- Informed after publishing this that the candle was my grandmother’s candle that she gave to my mom. My grandma was dirt poor and widowed young with small kids at home, my mother among them.
- Further adding to the hellscape: COLD WATER. What depths of horror to inflict on a family as various members would be called upon to assist, invariably do whatever job they were supposed to do incorrectly and receive a verbal takedown. And nearly freezing to death
- Moss Man™ came with a “delightful” pine scent. That must be why he is a heroic spy and master of camoflage.
- Moss Man™ would eventually live in my 1972 Buick LeSabre, the interior of which he matched perfectly.