Have a Holly Jolly Christmas

Something about the holidays….  They always bring back old memories, which for me means mostly unpleasant memories of my crazy grandmother, Etta, who managed to ruin Jesus’ Birthday every year until she died, and always in unique and memorable ways.  Christmas was tough on Etta; she hated the effort and expense of having everyone over even though her house was always spotless and she was only serving snacks.  Worse, she actively and vocally disliked her daughters’ husbands and had concluded that her grandchildren were rapidly turning into worthless, insolent layabouts, with poor posture to boot.   When one of us would sit to play a piece on the piano, we immediately would be told, loudly, to “sit up straight and act like a white boy/girl.”  This sort of thing always helped to make Christmas merry.

With seven grandchildren, Etta realized early on that buying all of us gifts could end up costing real money if she weren’t careful, so she was.  Each child received $7 for birthday and Christmas, often in the form of a deposit slip to our savings accounts (she made us all get them with her as trustee), so opening presents at her place wasn’t much, but having already spent $98 dollars that year on a bunch of dirty-pawed parasites, she wasn’t about to spend eight or so more bucks on a Christmas tree, so she seldom had them.

One year, though, Etta got an idea.  She had a 20-foot Holly tree in her yard that she wanted to remove that spring, so why not cut the top off and use it for a Christmas tree in the meantime?  After all, the price was right. In retrospect, of course, there were many reasons not to do so, which were especially clear to my older brother, my sister and I, who were roped into helping her execute her addlepated scheme, and emerged all the bloodier for it.  Funny thing was, that compared to the soul-crushing ordeal of decorating a Christmas tree with Etta, the puncture wounds weren’t so bad.

All of her lights and ornaments, which we found for her with no small difficulty in her hoarder-esque and spider-filled basement, dated from the prewar era, and were as scary and bedraggled to us as they were priceless and wonderful to her, so we were constantly threatened with physical harm and/or lawsuits (Etta was, at least rhetorically, litigious when litigiousness wasn’t cool…), were we to be so “clumsy” or “awkward” as to break anything.  So we strung the ancient, cloth-covered light strings, fortified as we now were with so many Bandaids, and I confess that by the time we got to the ornaments it became obvious that we were hurrying, like bar backs after last call, to get the hell out of there.  Unfortunately, Etta noticed this, and directed us all to sit down, look at the tree, and “make a study of it.”   Like we were f*cking Michelangelo or something, when our David was a piece of thorny yard debris that might or not explode into flames at any moment.  My brother Andy, who has always been the opposite of rebellious, almost rebelled at that point but he didn’t, annoyingly as usual.  Somehow, we got done and got out of there, but I think I’ve blocked the memory after that.

That Christmas Eve, after Etta had run herself ragged opening a can of olives and laying out crackers, and thus was in a more than usually bad mood, everyone did marvel, between Etta rants, at the beauty and ingenuity of the holly tree, which did look pretty good if you were a few feet away.   Unfortunately, my stepdad and uncle got a little drunk, the only reasonable thing to do when one is faced with an evening at Etta’s, and must have, if memory serves, broken something or other, so they remained in even lower esteem than normal for the rest of the year (although as far as I know she didn’t sue them…).  The good news, for the rest of us anyway, was that that was Etta’s last Christmas tree.  Deck the halls, Baby.


  1. nancy says:

    Oh, gawd, the pain of Christmas’ past. At least you are a generation removed.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Not exactly. My aunt Jicky, Etta’s other daughter, carried on the hallowed tradition of Christmas scenes after Etta’s death. I was seldom in attendance, as I discovered to my amazement that Christmas could actually be fun. Who knew?

  2. The Heel says:

    That was a cute story. Thanks for sharing. Never met the lady but remember countless references, right about the tipping point….

    • cocktailhag says:

      You’re of course CHNN’s Senior Tipping Correspondent, and not for nothing. I’m sorry you never got to meet Etta; you’re always so good at handling people like her. (Remember Gary’s party at Irving Street Lofts? I thought not, but you were stellar…)
      Just watch out for the stereo equipment on the way down in the future.

      • The Heel says:

        I do remember the party as a matter of fact and yes, brutal honesty sometimes has its charm in extreme situations.

        Great, now you got me all sentimental…

  3. michlib says:

    I’m thinking Etta would have loved Fox News, had such been available in her day. The age demographic and social outlook are spot on. Sad to contemplate that pre-1996, Etta and her like must have been waylaid with feelings of isolation and social angstxiety. At least she unknowingly provided you with a prescient image of the new ” normal ” yet to be.
    Happy holidays ( inclusive of xmas, Hannitykah, Kwame Kilpatrickza, and the rest of our panoply of religilous frippery ) !

  4. bluesky says:

    We got $3 each from my grandmother for birthdays – nothing for Christmas.* I also never saw it as it was confiscated to some savings account till it could be spent on something ‘worthwhile’. Still waiting ….

    Thanks for a memorable story!

    *cue the Python ‘I had it worse than you’ ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch

  5. avelna says:

    My grandmother (who, as I’ve said before seems to be very similar to yours) didn’t make so much of a big deal about her resentment at having to get gifts for the grandchildren as she did about not receiving the appropriate gifts from us, especially when she figured we were old enough to know better. She could be really nasty. I hope your celebrations, whatever they may be, can still be fun in spite of the bad memories.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Oh, even the bad memories are fun now, for my siblings and cousins when we get together…. I think seeing a lot of crazy and mean people early in life helps you learn to avoid them later (or worse, turn into one…), so I consider the experiences useful. My brother Andy pointed out to me that having had Etta as a grandmother at least gave me a lot of blog material, as it has.
      If you’re interested, look up an old post called “Batter Up” for another good Etta story; it might ring another bell for you about your grandmama.

  6. mikeinportc says:

    Ouch! ( You mentioned that tree , somewhere, previously? )Hey, it was free . So what if the grandleeches get pincushioned . :)

    Brings back work memories for me . I used to have to bundle it up, for retail sale , ( 33 bunches/case – I still remember . lol) along with making use of it in various other ways . ( Try making a holly kissing ball, if you’re feeling masochistic. ;) )

    Olives & crackers ? I know a couple of cheapsters that might want to take note. Any other Etta holiday specialties? :) ))))))

    • cocktailhag says:

      As a landscape designer, I don’t let anybody get blood-drawing plants, even if they want them. Somebody has to deal with those lacerating spikes and spears, and often it’s me. (I’ve made exceptions for yuccas, and regretted it….)
      Etta had no specialties. She seemed to subsist entirely on “Flaky Flix,” hot water, and pie ala mode, all prepared by others. (except the water…)
      You just reminded me…. Watch this space for the “lettuce in the car” Etta story.