Southern author Rheta Grimsley Johnson unpacks sentimental sand dollars to decorate the Christmas tree in her out-of-step Pass Christian chalet.
I love my house. Woefully out of step with prevailing style, it suits me. It also reminds me of a small wedding chapel at Georgia’s Callaway Gardens, where once, early on a December morning, I made vows I would not keep.
My house looks its best at Christmas. With a live tree in one of the big glass windows that fill the front, it is if the outside has slipped inside, blurring the lines between exterior and interior convincingly. Only unraked hickory leaves banked against glass reveal the demarcation.
The Christmas tree is up, no credit due me. Two nice young men from an Ocean Springs nursery set all eight flocked feet of it in its ready-made stand in the proper spot. They left. And now the tree looms unlit and bare and dares me to decorate. So far I’ve avoided it.
Somewhere in a laundry room that also serves as my office and domestic catch-all is a box of sand dollars I often use as ornaments. I picked them up on a St. Simons Island beach 43 years ago – Georgia, again -- bleached them white and strung ribbon through the holes nature gave them. Whenever they are touched, ancient sand still falls out.
I remember the day I found them. You could feel the sand dollars with your bare feet on the ocean floor before you could see them.
I realize that means the sea urchins were not dead when I harvested. The dollars that were dead or dying – “moribund” Wikipedia calls them – would have been on the beach being naturally bleached by the sun. My catches still had their velvety silica and were moving in concert and about their business, possibly even cloning, when my toes touched them.
Maybe that’s why they make such ideal Christmas ornaments. They come packaged with their own guilt, which powders the floor as I hang them.
And I will get around to hanging them. I always do. Else those urchins in the order Clypeasteroida would have died in vain.
Only a couple of times have I gone another decorating route. One recent year the tree was artificial and pre-lit, a gorgeous specimen I “won” at the Hancock Library tree gala, homage to those innocents killed in Paris by terrorists, and decorated with French flags and Eiffel Towers.
Something must jumpstart me into the season, reminding me to get through it. Probably it will be music. Usually is. The “Blood Oranges in the Snow” album Carole McKellar gave me one year is good for a nudge. That’s by musicians called Over the Rhine, a husband and wife duo that do the best cover of “If We Make it Through December” I’ve ever heard.
And there’s the holiday blues collection my New Orleans buddy John Bedford gave me as a gift one year. Till you’ve heard Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” three or four times nothing gets done.
You can run from the holidays, of course, but you cannot hide. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid the sight of an eight-foot tree covered in artificial snow in a small living room two blocks from the beach. Emotional blinders only hide so much.
By the time you read this I’ll have found the box, hung the sea dollars, played the albums, had a good cry and gone on about my holiday business. If I remember to water it, this monster tree might even serve for Mardi Gras. Or not. I’m usually first to the curb with leftovers.
The melancholy is as much a part of the season as tinsel and wassail. It passes.
And soon enough, the tree can be on the beach, fueling a bonfire, toasting the very toes that tentatively outlined the urchins that, with any luck, will go back in a shoebox and make the clutter cut for another 43 years.