Christmas stories

One last gift

My husband and my mother bought me a Christmas present together last year around this time. That wouldn't be strange except my mom passed away in 2001.

It's not really surprising that Jeanne got me a present from beyond the grave, because she loved three things with an equal fervor-- Christmas, her family, and buying that family Christmas gifts. If anyone could pull off giving a present 20 years after they've passed on, it would be her.

Such generosity was wonderful when I was little. I would wake up on Christmas morning to find the most extravagant spread of toys, books and clothes imaginable. But as I got older it began to feel like too much.

Every year in November I would have "the talk" with her, asking her to please cut back. Every year she would agree. And every year there would be the same enormous number of gifts under the tree. To her, Christmas wasn't Christmas without a living room filled to the brim with presents.

I think she's been plotting for the last 20 years about how to give me one last gift. Last year she saw her chance when my husband asked me to look for a piece of jewelry for my Christmas present. He is a smart man who knows that gifts of jewelry for wives work out best when wives do the shopping.

So off I went looking for a modest necklace of some kind. But when I glanced in the ring case at Market Square Jewelers in Newburyport, I saw a sapphire of a blue so beautiful, so clear and deep, that it took my breath away. Staffer Gail Hudson told me that the best Sri Lankan sapphires were the color of the evening sky right after the sun has set, and that's just what this stone looked like. I couldn't stop marveling at it.

But it wasn't a little something. It was a big something, and it cost more than I was prepared to let my husband spend on a Christmas present. And that's when Jeanne saw her opportunity and sprang.

"You know they buy jewelry here as well as sell it," she whispered in my ear. "What about trading in that old charm necklace of mine?"

I was more than a little surprised to hear from my deceased mother, but I was ready to listen. I knew the piece of jewelry she was talking about. It was a charm bracelet she had made into a necklace years ago but never wore.

Would I be a bad daughter if I sold it? It was special because it had belonged to her, but had sat unworn for decades.

Jeanne piped up again. "Honey, you know I never liked that thing! It was heavy and it looked terrible. Now hurry up, before someone else buys that ring!"

So I dug out the necklace along with a few other old pieces and went back to Market Square Jewelers. Gail assessed my haul and I bought the ring. My mother's charms went a long way toward defraying the cost.

I always knew my mother would give me the moon if she could. Well this time, along with my husband, she gave me a piece of the sky.

Thank you and Merry Christmas, Mom-you did it again, you devil, you­­­. 

Laughter, tears and mincemeat

Christmas is wonderful. Christmas is terrible. Christmas is about spending money. Christmas is quiet moments and visits with friends. Christmas is crying children, forgotten batteries and "The Little Drummer Boy" for the 500th time. Christmas is the best time of year. Christmas is the worst time of year.Christmas, more than anything, is memories, memories from our past and those made in front of our eyes. The memory of my mother cooking her mincemeat is Christmas in a single fragrant snapshot for me. I still make it myself, and it doesn't matter that no one else likes it (except for my 93 year-old father-in-law). The warm, spicy smell of it even half a decade later brings a little of my mother back to me again.

Every family has their own Christmas memory stories. Sometimes they aren't even our own memories, but feel like it because they have been shared so often. Like this one involving my parents...

The flying Christmas tree:

Jeanne and Stan were newlyweds in the 1950s, living in a little house in Reading, Mass. This was their first Christmas together, and my mother wanted the house to be beautiful, and the tree perfect. As if I were there, I can hear the muttering and swearing as Stan struggled to get the large tree he picked out to stay upright in its too-small stand. Success at last--the ornaments are hung, the lights arranged.

Suddenly-crash! The entire tree fell over. In a fury, Stan opened the front door, picked up the tree, and heaved it out. There was much breaking of glass and a lot of crying. Chastened, my father fetched the tree inside, and round two commenced. Heaven help us, the tree toppled again. Out it went, again. More crying, more swearing. Finally the tree, knowing when enough was enough, remained upright. Not exactly a silent night...

Rudolph, we hardly knew ye:

Now anyone can have a gargantuan Christmas display thanks to Home Depot, etc., but the decorative pickings were a lot leaner in the old days. That's why we kids were nearly beside ourselves when my father came home with a life-sized white plaster reindeer. He unveiled it with the same air of excitement as Darren McGavin in "A Christmas Story" when he breathlessly pulls the leg lamp out of its wrappings.

With the help of some black electrical tape, Stan secured a single red bulb on the creature's nose and the deer became RUDOLPH. He stood proudly on our front lawn, lit by a single spotlight. Our reindeer was the only one of his kind in town, and when the December light faded cars would drive by and pause to drink in his glory.

Rudolph was later joined by a second deer, as well as an actual sleigh and a giant stuffed Santa. Life was good. But one morning we woke up to find him missing, and all that remained were his removable antlers. Despite the best efforts of North Andover's finest, and a front-page story in the Lawence Eagle Tribune (with a picture of my sister holding the antlers), he stayed missing.

My father never completely got over it, but life goes on, even when beloved plaster Christmas icons are stolen. I'd like to think that whoever took Rudolph got as much pleasure out of him as we did, but the thieves were probably just some drunk kids who threw him in the woods. I prefer to remember Rudolph in his early glory-standing alone, his front foot eternally prancing.

Some Christmas memories are warm and filling, like a big piece of mincemeat pie. Some involve tears and and broken things. But time and distance soften jagged edges and, like a reindeer's red nose glimpsed through the snowy darkness, give everything a gentler glow.

Our giant Christmas tree-

the saga continues

November 20, 2021

I  have written a fair number of columns over the years, but there are two that seem to stick in people's minds. One is the ice cream column-the one where I detailed how I ate five ice creams from five different ice cream places in one day, because, well, it was an awesome thing to do. I expect that this will be noted on my headstone when the time comes: "Marilyn Davis Archibald-beloved wife and mother.  She ate five ice creams in a single day. We will never forget."

The other column that people seem to remember is the one about our annual giant Christmas tree, in which I describe my Grinch-like evolution from cranky exasperation to respect and yes, even affection for my husband's annual 18-foot behemouth. Everybody loves a good transformation story, and nobody can believe we have a tree that big in our house.

I will admit that the spot where the tree sits in what I still think of as our new house (though we've been here for five years) has helped with my moderation in attitude. In our old house there were almost no constraints on either the tree's height or its width. It basically took over the family room, elbowed you off the couch and demanded snacks.

Here the tree sits in a comparatively narrow but tall two-story space just inside the front door. The stairway is right next to it, and the second floor landing just above it.  The whole set-up seems custom-made for decorating an absurdly large Christmas tree (and chain-sawing it down when the festitivies are over).   My husband (reluctantly) agrees that we need to allow access to the second floor, so the girth-although not the height-- of the tree is substantially reduced.

Here we pause for a question: Did I buy this house--after looking at it only once-- because I saw immediately that our giant Christmas tree would of necessity be more contained? ("Your honor, my client would like to invoke her fifth amendment rights at this time").

Or, on the other hand, did we buy the house because it sits on-wait for it-a former Christmas tree farm? There are large conifers everywhere--Balsams, Douglas Firs, Blue Spruces, all left to live out their natural lives without falling victim to the ax and consequently getting very tall indeed. It may be that the proximity of so many potential Christmas trees ON OUR OWN LAND was just impossible to resist.

My husband looks enviously at them, but even he admits that some trees are just too big. We did cut a tree on the property the first year we lived here- the perfect tall yet slender tree--but since then we've utilized one of West Newbury's many tree farms.

However there are two lovely little firs that we have our collective eye on out by the mailbox. Every year they get a bit closer to their holiday fate. It feels a little cold-blooded--the poor trees probably think we're admiring them for their natural beauty, when in fact we're eyeing them for their Christmas suitability. 

 They aren't ready yet, at least by our standards, but they will be one day.  Keep growing, young trees, and soon one of you will stand in the Archibald entryway--proud, regal and preposterously tall.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, November 29, 2021

I want to thank my readers for their kind support and words of praise and encouragement over the past year. To paraphrase Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol--bless you, every one.  For more holiday stories, please go to the Christmas page in the navigation menu above.  And see below to find out the origin story of the giant Christmas tree.

Making peace with my (enormous) Christmas tree

The tree towers over everything. The width of its trunk is nearly impossible to measure. The top is almost out of sight. Tales are told of this giant and people come to gaze in awe.

I'm talking about my Christmas tree.

The huge tree is my husband favorite thing. He loves hunting for it, decorating it, and hearing the gasps of amazement when people see it. He loves it because he loves a challenge, and an 18-foot Christmas tree is a challenge worthy of his talents.

I have no idea what it would be like to have a tree that fits through the front door without a struggle, and is easily tossed out after Christmas. Taking our tree down when the holidays are over requires two vacuums, a wheelbarrow, and power tools. Our New Year's Day tradition consists of watching football and dismantling the tree with a chainsaw while setting off all the smoke detectors.

Where does one find a tree this big, you ask? In the farthest corner of the Christmas tree farm, because dragging it to the checkout is part of the challenge. It's the tree that's been growing for years, the one that no one wants because it's too big. Cutting it down leaves my athletic husband winded. Lifting it onto the car is an event in the "The World's Strongest Man" competition.

A tree like this requires the largest possible stand bolted to a huge piece of plywood. Keeping it steady while wrestling it into the stand involves great struggle, potential injury, and language not suitable for children's ears.

Even when the tree is finally upright, victory remains elusive. The stand's screws aren't strong enough to hold the monster steady, so David uses pieces of wood jammed in next to the trunk to shim it. And, gravity being what it is, one more level of support is needed­-a rope from the very top attached to a (festive) block of concrete on the second floor.

Phew. But when all the grueling set-up is done and the tree is standing tall with lights and ornaments shimmering, it is spectacular.

And to my eternal shame, I was a killjoy about the tree for a long time.

The difficulty. The mess. The scratched arms. The avalanche of Rubbermaid containers spewing Christmas stuff everywhere. I'm pretty even-tempered but the giant Sequoia in my living room always brought out the grumpy in me.

I complained about the selection of the tree ("Oh my god, not that one, it's too biggg"), the struggle up the back stairs ("I'm never doing this again! Never!") and the installation ("ARRGGHHHH!"). So Christmas tree day was miserable instead of fun and it was my fault.

A couple years ago I realized that I was acting like the Grinch. Why was I being a sourpuss about something that gave the love of my life such pleasure? So getting the tree was hard. Big deal. So the living room got messy. Who cared? None of that mattered compared to the joy my husband got from the whole process.

So like the Grinch, I changed. I'm not sure if my heart grew three sizes like his did, but it's definitely bigger. Several years ago we cut a tree on our own property (which is a former Christmas tree farm. Coincidence? Or something more?) and I enjoyed doing it. Last year the family went tree-hunting and I stayed home baking cookies-a win for everybody.

I vow to continue my truce with the giant Christmas tree because the tree makes my husband happy. And isn't making the people we love happy what Christmas is all about?

Now who wants to come see our tree this year? It's an absolute beauty, and boy, is it big.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport

Happy New Year-

now go make your bed

I made my bed this morning.

I made it yesterday too, as well as the day before that. I made it every day last week, last month, last year. Anytime you see me, you can assume that my bed is made. Call me a crazed, bed-making zealot, I don't care. As far an I'm concerned, an unmade bed after 8 or 9 a.m. is the first step to the kind of slovenliness that will eventually have me wearing a stained housecoat and sporting curlers at the supermarket.

My bed-making inspiration came from the sight of my mother putting her bed in order every day. I don't believe there was ever a day when my mother's bed wasn't made, or when her room was a clothes-strewn mess. Her bedroom was a always a soothing, ordered place. My mother never yelled at me to make my bed, she just showed me what life was like when you did.

When I put my bed in order I am accomplishing my first task of the day. Pull back the top sheet, smooth the bottom one on one side, then the other. Pull the top sheet back up and fold it over the now wrinkle-free blanket so that it looks nice, shake out the pillows and fluff them so they stand up and then order the throw pillows. Arrange the plaid blanket over the bottom of the bed, like the cherry on top of a sundae and that's it, I'm done.

How long did it take me? Less than five minutes. It's pleasant and meditative, and never feels like work. But somehow it means everything to my day. It's only 8'o clock in the morning and I have already accomplished something that's important to me.

I had no idea other people felt this way until a few years ago, when former Navy Admiral William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, gave a commencement speech in 2014 in which he extolled the virtues of the made bed. "If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed," he told the graduates. "It will give you a small sense of pride and encourage you to do another task, and another...Making your bed will also reinforce the face that little things in life matter...and if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that's made...and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better."

The speech became a social media sensation and McRaven went on to incorporate it into a book called "Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...and Maybe the World." A SEAL for 37 years and formerly commander of U.S. Special Operations, this man appears to know a thing or two about Getting Stuff Done. So if he believes in the value of fluffing blankets and tucking sheets, that's good enough for me.

Of course, not everyone feels this way, but I'm sorry for those who miss out on the simple joy of climbing into a smooth and ordered bed each night.

Now excuse me, it's 8 a.m. I need to go change the world.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport