Inside Scoop from Joe: An earlier version of this story appeared in December 2013, and a slightly modified version previously appeared in a magazine. But this is my favorite incarnation of one of my favorite reminiscences. Merry Christmas from the Joe Zone to your zone!
Christmas memories capture some of the most cherished moments of our childhood. We remember warm family gatherings, presents that delighted us, church services celebrating the Infant’s birth. Sometimes, however, our memories include grim tableaus seared into our brains by events gone horribly awry. These recollections are the exclamation points rising above the landscape of periods; they are cymbal clashes in the lush, hushed strings of the soundtrack of our youth. For me, one of the harshest, most discordant cacophonies of my childhood was the night the Christmas tree fell.
The evening began as a scene that Norman Rockwell might well have painted. My father had come home from work in a holiday mood, bolstered by a wonderful hot meal prepared by my mother. Middle-class meatloaf at a family table before Christmas can surpass filet mignon in satisfying hunger and strengthening spirit. Cups of steaming tea for my parents, bittersweet hot chocolate for us kids, helped us forget the December winds blustering outside.
Christmas was my mother’s favorite time of year, and I could see the joy of the season in her eyes. The magic day was right around the corner, and my two sisters and I were working ourselves into a frenzy of Yuletide anticipation. Ornaments! Lights! Presents! No school!
My father had set up the Christmas tree several days prior. The unmistakable aroma of needles and sap permeated the house, promising Christmas as surely as the falling temperatures. Most of the decorating was completed – big red, green, and blue bulbs, glass balls, crocheted trinkets, strings of icicles. Full and plump as a Christmas turkey, the tree stood majestically in the corner of the living room, the black Lionel locomotive chugging around its base. The towering pinnacle of the spruce almost touched the ceiling. Magnificent it was, but just as the newly-christened Titanic had an appointment with an iceberg, so our tree had booked a reservation with doom.
After dinner, all that remained was to place the angel on the treetop, a maneuver requiring some agility and delicacy. As Dad confidently placed the stepladder beside the tree, my sisters and I knew he was the man for the job. My mother, still wearing her jingle bell and reindeer Christmas apron, had us join hands, and we became my father’s personal cheering section.
Angel in hand, he embarked on his climb with the determination of Sir Edmund Hillary ascending Everest, except Dad didn’t need a Sherpa. One slow, careful step after another, the wooden ladder steps creaking with age, brought him to the peak.
With a bold stroke that would have made Sir Edmund proud, Dad rammed the angel onto the protruding branch at the tree’s summit. I looked at my sisters and gave them a knowing wink, as they nodded in approval – we knew that angel was there for the duration. My father’s face shone with the satisfaction of a manly task accomplished. He was once again the conquering provider for his family.
As Dad descended the ladder, fate intruded in a way none of us could have imagined: his foot became entangled in the string of tree lights. The wire had furtively wrapped around his leg, with the malevolent cruelty that can only be exhibited by inanimate objects. Reaching the lowest step, his leg stretched the wire taut, causing tension on the tree. My father then lost his balance, a victim to the evil wire’s plot, and began to fall backwards. We watched in horror as the tree tipped over, being pulled by my unsuspecting father. It followed him down as faithfully as Santa’s sleigh had ever followed Rudolph. As the tree made its long descent into family folklore, time slowed, as it often does when cataclysmic events visit the innocent. Four shocked faces were frozen in disbelief as the tree came down, silent at first, then culminating in a thundering CRASH tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle… Moments before, a splendid spruce had stood in giddy holiday regalia. Now there lay a pile of green rubble with an occasional ornament and parental limb sticking out. The formerly festive living room looked as if someone had decorated a horrific holiday crash scene.
Our Norman Rockwell night was ending as Norman Bates. It was as if Frank Capra had turned over the director’s reins to Alfred Hitchcock. But the angel was still doggedly clinging to the top of the tree, bless her heavenly heart. Eerie silence ensued for what seemed like enough time for the Magi to cross the Sahara. I thought we were surely going to get an answer to the question: if a Christmas tree falls in the living room, and the family is stunned out of their skivvies, does anyone hear it?
Then my mother moved more quickly than I had ever seen her, rushing to the wreckage and shrieking, “Joe! Joe! Are you all right? Can you get up?” She tore at the limbs and icicles and ornaments, finally revealing my father’s face. He looked dazed, as if he was wondering why he was lying on the floor looking at the ceiling. But at least he appeared to be conscious. We waited for the epithet sure to come from his lips. Could any kid within earshot not suffer permanent hearing loss, seared eyebrows, and emotional trauma? My father then slowly stirred, groaning like the wind against the shutters outside, but less coherently. Suddenly, he sprang up, seemingly unfazed, and with a merry laugh and a twinkle in his eyes, exclaimed, “Ho, ho, ho! That certainly was a holly jolly trick on me!” Sort of. At least, that’s what he’ll say when the Disney movie is made. Memories, of course, often soften with time. I’m sure he was a bit more emphatic, and may have said something to convey “Christmas! Bah, humbug!” But with more salt and vinegar than Dickens ever placed in Scrooge’s mouth.
My father managed to resurrect the tree from its ashes, like a Phoenix from the fire, or, more accurately, a Yuletide zombie from its grave. Dad had suffered only a few scrapes and scratches, the tree a bent limb and some broken glass ornaments (which my mother greatly rued). But the Christmas spirit lived on, Santa still came, and we celebrated the holy miracle of December the twenty-fifth. Life went on.
Many Christmas memories were forged after that fateful season. My mother’s love for the holiday continued to grow with each passing year. My father brought home a fresh tree and erected it in our living room without fail. But never again, for the remainder of my childhood, did I see a stepladder in the same room with our Christmas tree.