Opinion: Thinking back on the night before the night before Christmas
During his 30 years with The Hartford Courant, Owen Canfield, late father of The Oklahoman’s Opinion editor, wrote 22 columns about Christmas. Our soon-to-retire publisher, Kelly Fry, thought readers of The Oklahoman might enjoy one of those columns today. This one was published in 1984. Merry Christmas.
It was 1963. The phone rang in the office.
“Disaster area,” she said.
“Again? Any injuries? Much damage?”
I drove home and put on my heavy gloves and put the Christmas tree back up. It fell again that night, while I was outside shoveling snow. All by itself, I was told. Just took a dive, smasho, onto the rug. I put it up again. It took patience, which I didn’t have, and considerable swearing. I had plenty of that.
“Oh, stop,” she said. “It’s Christmas.” She was always so calm.
I was sweating. I had a twig in my eye, and a tiny, teeny piece of shattered ornament in my finger, having fired my gloves across the room, and tinsel draped in my hair and needle scratches on every exposed inch of my body. From upstairs came the infuriating, muffled laughter of people who wanted desperately to laugh, but wanted just as desperately not to be heard laughing.
I delivered the now-famous “Normal Human Beings” for the first time. Over the next 11 years, I would deliver it as many as four times in a Christmas season, to as many as 10 listeners.
The Christmas tree never falls down anymore. Look at this one, filling the same living room corner where 24 predecessors stood. It is very large. Very full. Beautifully shaped. Perfectly trimmed. Majestic, a visitor called it. Not one light bulb unlit. Not a trickle of tinsel out of place. It stands there, all proud and untethered, daintily balanced in its three-legged stand.
Majestic, eh? Arrogant, I call it. Disdainful. Haughty, even. Standing there on the very spot where its ancestors fought and died. They thought they were invincible, too. Balancing there, looking pretty, without a care in the world, an unscarred, unscathed, uncaring tree, blissfully ignorant of its history.
“Remember,” I said, “no football near the tree, like last year. No rough-housing. No wrestling. No racing on tricycles. No having a catch. No jumping rope. Let’s see if we can keep it looking nice. Only three days till Christmas.” It was 1966.
That night, I was struggling to put the tree back up, giving the “Normal Human Beings” speech through clenched teeth. “Norman human beings put up their Christmas trees, and when the season is over, they take them down. They don’t use them for tackling dummies. This is not a railroad gate that goes up and down when the train goes by. This is not a railroad crossing. It’s a fragile Christmas tree. Normal human beings treat Christmas as a nonviolent time of year. Peace on Earth, for crying out loud. …”
The little kids had fled. The bigger kids stood around, but at a good distance, showing superhuman self-control by allowing no laughter to escape.
“Will you turn it a little toward the wall, please” said the Calming Voice, “so that we can’t see that big, well, broken place?”
“The whole thing is a broken place. One big broken place.”
“No it isn’t. There. Fine. What’s wrong with that? Relax. Accidents happen.”
These days, if the dog wags his tail and one little ornament falls off, people get excited, and the tree, it seems to me, looks offended, as if saying, “Keep that animal away from me. Don’t you know I’m a regal entity, a special thing to be admired and not touched, and certainly not to be wagged at?”
Well, pardon my sneer.
1970. Maturing voices of young women from upstairs.
“Daniel backed into it with the fire truck. Maureen was on the back but there were no injuries.”
“Oh. What’s he saying now?”
“He’s on ‘railroad gate.’”
“Oh. What’s that hammering?”
“He’s got some kind of board with a wire on it, and he’s nailing it to the room divider. And he’s got it tied up with some kind of string or wool, too. Mom’s arguing, but he’s going ahead with it.”
“Can you stand it? Can … you … stand it?”
“That’s it,” the Calming Voice said in 1973. “Put the hammer away. I won’t have my Christmas tree held up with 2-by-4s and chains and ropes anymore.”
“But it’s only a little strip of wood, fine wire …”
“No. Besides, we really don’t want to prop it up anymore. Really. Do we?” And we didn’t.
We sat there on the night before the night before, 1984, examining the tree. We were alone because young adults who have returned for the Christmas moment go out nights, and when they come in, they need not be told to protect the tree.
“It’s beautiful. The best we ever had. It’s almost …”
“Yeah, yeah, majestic. But arrogant, wouldn’t you say? I’d like to … do you mind if … well, if I knock it down? Just once. Just let me push it over, one time.”
She chuckled, understanding. “I was thinking the same thing. I’m tempted to say go ahead. But no. Tell you what, though. I’ll listen to a couple choruses of the ‘Normal Human Beings’ speech.”
“Nope. Last time I gave that speech, you know what I got. Blatant applause.”
“I know. I was one of those applauding.”
“Can I catch a break around here?”
“How about the time …”
And we were off on our own little trip in the empty house, laughing so hard with the memories that our eyes watered. If anybody had been upstairs, they’d have thought we were both crazy.”