I wouldn’t say my mother is my muse; but her opinions, outsize personality, and lifestyle are an endless source of creative content. She is so larger than life, in fact, that one of my colleagues used an article I wrote about Mom as an example of character analysis in her 7th-grade literature class. Can you imagine, then, what the holidays are like with an over-the-top, glamorous, loud Italian mother?
Trimming the tree is the start of the season, and although my mom would put silvery branches in every vessel available around our house, the tree had a special spot in the center atrium of her 1980s sprawling ranch. At Christmas, it became our own personal Rockefeller Center. The ordinary atrium trees were never decorated but merely the backdrop for the annual Christmas concoction. The theme for the tree changed every year. Doves and peacock feathers. All peach-colored ornaments. Lace and beads. It would take her an entire week to furnish the most beautiful original Christmas tree in the days before Pinterest and YouTube tutorials. It was an elaborately tasteful twelve-foot confection worthy of the White House.
Of course, tree trimming requires festive music. Dean Martin, Bing, pretty much any fella with a big band behind him. Some of the music might have been holy, but it never sounded like church. We epitomized rockin’ around the Christmas tree and it was loud because that fancy ‘80s ranch with the atrium in the middle also had surround sound. Sinatra crooned from all 3000 square feet that we ought to have ourselves a merry little Christmas and my mom sang along with him.
The meals were everything you imagined when you first read the word Italian. Yes, there were seven fishes, soup with little veal meatballs, or sometimes fa-la-la-la-lasagna, and always ten thousand desserts, but what made my mom “extra” was the tableware. She had a different set of dishes for each course. She changed the tablecloth between those courses. The silverware was real, the centerpiece was fresh floral, and the napkins were white cloth. Martha Stewart would have been proud.
And now, my mother is an 88-year-old living in a condo in Florida. When she downsized, she gave away all the Christmas finery, but she remains glamorous and her décor is still flashy. Her Christmas tree is no longer a 12-foot evergreen, but a gold metal spiral that sits on a tabletop festooned with leopard print ornaments and white doves. We store it fully decorated. She hangs mistletoe, and cherubs swing from the light fixtures. Sinatra now emanates from Alexa. She still stuffs artichokes, but she will bring them to dinner at my house where I will use one of her poinsettia-print tablecloths. Mom will dress for Christmas dinner in high heels and shiny earrings. Her sweater will twinkle with sequins. She may have Martha Stewart’s knack, but her style is certainly not QVC.
Christmas at my house is hardly glam. I try to get in the spirit, but I don’t have a week to decorate, and you are more likely to find a Starbucks ornament on my tree than a peacock feather. All the whimsical items in my house are gifts from Mom – there’s an animated Santa, a winter ski lodge complete with a revolving ski lift, and a musical carousel sits atop our piano. Frankly, if my mom hadn’t given me the red tablecloths, we would probably eat off of plain, plastic placemats.
I’ll ask my mom to tweak my tree before the guests arrive. I’ll ask her to do whatever she can to help my house look less like the seasonal section of Walmart and more like her ‘80s ranch.
“Make it Instagrammable,” I’ll beg.
Mom has always known how to create visual drama and had there been social media in her heyday, she would have been an influencer, I’m sure. Although she was not trained as a decorator, my mom has Christmas spirit to the nines and that has made all the difference in her displays. Her desire to place her family in a wonderland every year is her gift. When you enter her home, she wants you to feel the magic, the glitter in the air, the love. She wants you to be filled with joy because you have made her joyful.
Mom may live alone, but she would never leave that fully decorated gold spiral tree in storage. She still writes over a hundred Christmas cards each December. Even without mistletoe, she will kiss you on both cheeks. And part of the reason for all the food is that each grandchild has a favorite dish that she will lovingly prepare even if it means another course, another tablecloth, or another pot to wash.
The glitz and Kardashian-level opulence is Mom’s way of telling us family time at the holidays is special; we are special. She is not trying to keep up with Kris Jenner, she’s not even watching Kris Jenner. Instead, she is glued to Hallmark until that formulaic kiss five minutes before the credits roll because Hallmark movies make us feel good even though they’re cheesy. Isn’t putting bird feathers and tinsel everywhere just a bit cheesy too?
So as mom and I try to zhuzh up my house this Christmas, I won’t gripe at the glitter all over my floors or the amount of time it will take to un-deck the halls. Instead, I will cherish the people who come to celebrate with us. We will marvel at my mother’s Christmas spirit and maybe, if we are lucky, we will learn to sparkle like my mom.