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Yule Memories That Won't Melt Away

December 25, 1985|SUE MARTIN | Martin is a member of the Times staff. and

I was always disappointed that it never snowed on Christmas. That's what happens when you live in the San Fernando Valley all your life. My dad has photos of when it snowed in the Valley in 1947. But it didn't last long, just long enough to get the photos and it wasn't even Christmas. It snowed in San Diego County sometime in the late '60s or early '70s, inches of it, where my grandparents lived. I was really envious. But, alas, it never (sigh) snowed in Burbank while I was growing up. (At the beginning of this month, it snowed in the north end of the Valley, but I missed it, being on the Westside for a film.)

So I had to make do come holiday time.

I became especially cheerful when it got overcast, and very excited when it rained. At least it was gloomy and usually--for California--cold. I lived in the pictures of Christmas cards with their sleighs and silent forests with antlered deer in them. I especially liked the cards with the snowy glitter or velvet patches on them. Christmas carols always made me shiver with anticipation because most of them dealt with the cold and snow and midnights clear. There is a wonderful lonely, end-of-the-year quality to Christmas carols that, even when I was young, clutched my heart with memories past and things lost.

The most wintry aspect of my holiday time was when the Christmas tree lots began to appear after Thanksgiving, which for me was merely a warm-up for the Big Deal. You know, the relatives come over, the turkey smells up the house, there's a football game on television and you get to eat more food than on any time since Easter.

Ah, but the trees!

The minute I had a second, usually on my way home from school, in the first Christmas tree lot I came across, I'd dive in nose first, rubbing through the dark greenery, sticking my head in the branches and inhaling that smell of dark, deep woods somewhere up North that could utterly mesmerize me. I easily forgot that I stood in the parking lot of the local grocery store, with cars whizzing about or in the gray dust and trampled weeds of some normally forlorn vacant lot, that became for a few brief weeks, the Woods. I would even collect the sappy bits and pieces of branches that got snagged off the trees and crushed under foot. I spread them all over my bedroom, driving my mom to exasperation with all the dry needles on everything. One Christmas Eve, a lot owner gave away the trees he had left. How could I resist? So I lugged one home and set it up in the bedroom, hiding behind it with my dolls and the cats and throwing stuff at my little brother.

But the best time, the supreme moment came when the family got the tree, the official tree for the living room. This was a project, decided on gravely and almost as important as the Big Day itself.

Mom would even relent sometimes, when I was quite young, and we would get Bob's Big Boy as a treat (and so my mom wouldn't have to clean up dinner as well as after five kids--this includes Dad who was as excited as my brothers and I).

We all had our favorite ornaments to hang on the tree and places to put them. Dad would holler if we got them too close to the edge of the branch, which would drag it down and it would dry in a droop. Christmas tree decorating was a real art to my dad. We had to put the tinsel on just so, not too clumpy and not too sparsely: just right. We always got Douglas firs because they smelled the best. One bad spot on the tree was OK, as we would just turn that place to the wall. Besides, it gave the tree sort of a teddy bear personality.

The cats would have a good time, what with all those musty boxes out of the garage and the bright gilt baubles just perfect for a game of Christmas hockey. The dog could easily rearrange the bottom of the tree with a couple of swipes of his tail and then he'd run off, tinsel flying, like a jet stream.

When, at last, the tree was done, my dad would put on our Christmas album (we've had it since 1959) and one of us would turn off all the lights and then, the Christmas tree lights would go on and it was silence and wonder and magic. I wanted to hug the whole scene or swallow it in one gulp and hold it inside like the warmth of hot chocolate.

Usually, it would be 80 or 90 degrees on Christmas Day (well, sometimes it did rain) and the sun would come through the window like a knife and set off the sparkle and glitter of the ornaments and tinsel. My parents would have closed off the living room the night before so we would leave for Christmas Mass at 6 through the back door and spend the longest hour of the year listening to the murmur of the priest, singing along with the music and squirming and fussing.

Then with a rush, back down the quiet streets, we crowded Dad while he unlocked the door and then we dove in, anxiously ripping open packages like little savages, comparing our loot, each of us in our corner with our new things. We got ordinary things like socks and shirts and occasionally grand things like a bicycle.

And the advantage of a Christmas without snow was that we could immediately play outside or visit friends and drive their mothers nuts, dodging the dark suits and old ladies' dresses of unknown relatives.

This is what we had at Christmas instead of snow.

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