December 20, 2013 | by Titi Nguyen
Several years ago, my mother announced she was through with Christmas trees. She and my father were tired of buying the thing, lugging it home, and decorating and taking it down. There would be no more tree unless we, their four grown children, put it up ourselves. That year my siblings and I drove to the Quincy Artery Garden Center, ten miles outside Boston, and dragged an eight-footer home. It was like wrangling an alligator; the sharp needles dug into our hands and the peak scraped against the living room ceiling, leaving a long gray trail across the “Cotton Balls” ultra-white paint my father had applied mere months before. That was the last yuletide tree at my parents’ house.
Each year I’ve urged my older brother to revive this tradition; naturally, the job falls to him, since, in the Vietnamese custom, he lives with our parents in their house along with his wife and children. The rest of us have moved out. But his two jobs sometimes don’t afford him time to sleep or eat, let alone embellish a tree. My sister has her own family’s tree to tend to now, and I don’t expect my younger brother, the baby of the family, to take action. I am the biggest tree enthusiast, but my returns home from New York City are always too late. My mother firmly believes in getting maximum use out of any purchase; our pine usually went up right after Thanksgiving and lasted into late February through the Asian Lunar New Year.
As a child I always thought our tree was special. My cousin’s tree, carried up from the basement each year by my uncle, looked creepy to me, the flame-retardant branches screwed into a skinny wooden pole painted green. My family kept fresh spruces that filled our living room with a peppercorn smell. The ornaments, whose individual histories and significances we’d forgotten or simply didn’t know, seemed to have come from a Goodwill bin. Most had been passed along to us by my parents’ housekeeping clients, people they cleaned for in the wealthier neighboring towns. I remember a baked clay piece shaped like a Christmas tree, looped through with green ribbon and painted in cursive across the base: Merry X-mas, Kilborns! There was also a glazed ceramic baseball player in a striped jersey holding a bat over his shoulder that read BENJAMIN; each year, we celebrated the athletic talents of some little-league slugger we’d never met. The glue on some pieces had yellowed and cracked, and various parts had fallen off—the bow on a ceramic wreath, the plastic googly eyes of a square snowman fashioned out of Popsicle sticks. Instead of the usual star, we had an angel whose rubber head was constantly rolling off. To get her onto the tree, you had to stick the top branch up her velvety skirt.
When you looked closely it was an odd thing, mismatched and ramshackle, but I took pride in the fact that ours didn’t look like it had come out of any department store, choked in tacky plastic garlands or strung with matching glass orbs. Our tree had history, even if it wasn’t our own. My mother never used tinsel, and I appreciated her insistence that we stick with classic white lights. I’d sneak downstairs after everyone else had gone to bed, slide a sofa cushion under the tree, and lie down with a book. Sometimes I just stared up at the winking pricks of light.
I grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, home of John Hancock, the man who signed the Declaration of Independence with such style and largesse that his name became synonymous with signature. The city also bore to history the likes of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Sam Adams. The regional newspaper is The Patriot Ledger, and Quincy boasts seven National Historic Landmarks, most of them connected to the legacies of the political families that laid roots there. Besides being home to the nation’s founding fathers and progressive, intellectual women like Abigail Adams, the “City of Presidents” is a working-class town of immigrants and their descendants. The Irish, Italian, and English migrated to Quincy in the late 1820s to benefit from the granite quarrying and stonecutting industries that earned the town its other nickname, “The Granite City.” Names like Quigley, Conley, Steadman, Cappellano, and Kennedy dotted my class rosters.
My family lived in a neighborhood of Quincy called Germantown that consisted primarily of public housing projects for low-income families. Our unit sat across from Germantown’s main rotary where the tall deciduous tree in the center was illuminated each Christmas with colorful lights, and our stoop doubled as the neighborhood’s principle bus stop. Whether or not they waited for the #214 to Quincy Center, kids lingered all night on my family’s front steps, smoking and screaming and blasting their boom boxes. The morning after a rock crashed through a window in the bedroom my sister and I shared, I joined my father outside to survey the scene. Broken beer bottles littered the icy lawn and milky disks of spitballs had frozen on the sidewalk. The front door was covered with black, jagged writing.
I asked my father about one unfamiliar word.
He told me, “Gook.”
I asked him what it meant.
“It’s a bad word. They’re making fun of us,” he said, “because we are Vietnamese.”
It was one of the few times my father taught me English.
Now during the holidays, my mother makes up for the house’s arboreal absence in other ways. She loops shiny garlands around the stair banister. She layers big puffs of white cotton against the windows and sets out electric candles. The front and back doors are wreathed, and the two small trees in our front yard each get a short string of lights. My mother’s biggest pride though, now that the tree is out of the game, is her collection of handcrafted Caroler dolls. She noticed them while cleaning a client’s home some years before, and told us she was drawn to their antique look. Before the ease of Internet shopping had become familiar, I had a hard time finding the dolls. I finally tracked them down at a cramped holiday boutique in Quincy Center, and for the next several Christmases, my siblings and I took turns buying a new figurine to add to my mother’s collection. The store closed several years ago and I began getting her more useful things: gloves, sweaters, underwear. This year, though, after a seven-year hiatus, I decided to search online for a Caroler.
In her taste for traditional holiday décor, the creator of the Carolers, Joyce Byers, sounds a lot like my mother. Feeling disappointed with the garish decorations she found in stores in the late sixties, Byers, an amateur artist with a degree in fashion design, set out to create a figurine that embodied the holiday warmth and traditional feel that was so important to her. Her first Caroler doll adorned the Byers’ dining room table that Christmas and soon, creating the Carolers became her full-time job. With her husband and sons eventually joining her, her dolls grew into a family business.
The artisans in the Byers’ Choice workroom in Bucks County, Pennsylvania sculpt, paint, dress, and accessorize the dolls entirely by hand. Within the limited editions of one hundred figurines, no two Carolers are exactly alike, something I can vouch for having spent hours comparing seemingly identical dolls in the store. The differences are slight: the tilt of the heads and torsos, the eye shapes, how the highlights in those eyes are applied. The paint on one face can look a little brighter than the paint on another doll of the same model. Their one constant feature is the trademark open mouth: a long hollow o carved into each face.
Through the years, the company has supplemented their regular line of traditional Caroler dolls with several special editions: Holy Family, Cries of London, Specialty Santas, Salvation Army, 12 Days of Christmas, and what have become my favorite, dolls based on A Christmas Carol. This edition features a Bob Cratchit doll carrying Tiny Tim on his back, and as if the artisans feared that an open-mouthed Scrooge would appear, naturally, to be crying in anguish at being cast in an act of Christmas cheer, the notorious miser’s puppet wears an unambiguously wide grin.
At first I hated the Caroler dolls—their expressions always appeared to me frozen in screams of terror or pain. The sharp bone structure and pasty hues of the dolls’ thin faces recall Munch’s The Scream. I was also recently reminded of them as I stared up at the mournful, grief-stricken visages of Giotto’s angels in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
The dolls also make me think of colonial America. Their miniature bonnets, fur muffs, wire-rimmed spectacles, and crushed velvet jackets belong less to eighteenth-century Revolutionary America than they do to early Victorian England, but I didn’t recognize these distinctions when I was younger. Byers’ Choice has since affirmed for me this sense of Americana within the Carolers by releasing Colonial Williamsburg and Historical editions.
As a kindergartener at Thanksgiving time I paraded around the baseball field behind my school in the “Turkey Trot,” an ingenious opportunity for teachers to kill a couple of hours. In the first and second grades I became a Native American with a colorful headdress fashioned out of construction paper, and by the third grade I wore the somber gold-buckled, black paper hat of a colonist. Each year on April 19, we celebrated Flag Day around the flagpole in front of the school by waving mini American flags while singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
I have a photo of myself at one celebration, wincing in the spring sun with a crayoned flag plastered to my forehead. I sang those patriotic songs over and over at home, and if my parents understood the lyrics, they were probably bemused to see their immigrant daughter’s newfound passion for the country. My mother and father always made clear the importance of remembering where we came from; for a period of time my father even forbade my siblings and me to speak English at home. “In Vietnamese!” he’d yell when we argued over chores or whose turn it was in the bathroom.
Beginning in elementary and throughout junior high, I went on field trips to Lexington and Concord, the first site of the battle between the American militia and British troops and home of “the shot heard ‘round the world”; Plymouth Rock; the birthplace of John Adams and John Quincy Adams; and other Massachusetts landmarks. I distinctly remember lining up against the stone wall in front of the Adams’ family mansion for the first of many occasions, and the secret disappointment that pricked my throat when I realized it was nothing like I’d expected—no mustachioed Gomez or elegant Morticia gliding down the stairs to greet me, no dismembered hands or spooky organ music—nothing to see throughout the tour, in fact, but a bunch of old furniture.
I learned about Paul Revere’s big ride and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. By the seventh grade I’d memorized the preamble to the Constitution and heard Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in my dreams. But I was fairly sure some stories were missing. I wanted to know more about the Japanese internment during WWII, the Holocaust, the Tuskegee airmen. On my own I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, and I asked my parents about the Vietnam War, although they never told me much.
So I too fell prey to this Yankee fever, although my own attachments fell closer to the Civil War. I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women countless times and forced my best friend to role-play with me after school; she could be Marmee or almost any one of the March sisters, or Laurie if she felt so inclined, but the bold and literary Jo was off-limits—she was mine alone. In my parents’ bedroom, we zipped each other up into my mother’s eighties ruchéd dresses, wrapped our shoulders with shawls and scarves, pinned back our black hair. We pretended my parents’ room was the Marches’ pre-war house in Concord and attended society balls hosted by wealthy snobs.
To the dismay of my classmates, Quincy High’s mascot was a presidential top hat in blue and white. Many of the football players and cheerleaders averted their eyes when the huge foam hat toppled out onto the football field following the rival high school’s mascot, Mr. Yakoo, a guy painted red with a huge feather headdress who would streak out onto the field howling and waving their school flag. From our end of the bleachers, we, the ever-civil Presidents, watched politely as the North Quincy fans stomped and yelled for their Red Raiders.
When we earned our learners’ permits and cruised around town, we were greeted by the billboards Quincy real estate agent Sam Rounseville posted on Newport Avenue near the Wollaston T station. Rounseville had his name legally changed to ‘Uncle Sam’ and for years graced over tens of thousands of dollars worth of billboards in a royal blue suit with red-and-white striped lapels and cuffs and a red bow tie and top hat. Staring down from his high perch, our own Doctor T. J. Eckleburg pointed his finger at us and reminded us to donate to our local charities during the holiday season, to stay in school, to stop smoking: “kick butts.” He pointed out, “It’s a man’s world unless women vote,” and “This Yankee loves the Red Sox.”
My friend and her family suffered taunting and several break-in robberies as the first Asian family to move into our neighborhood. But soon the Fangs came, followed by the Wongs, Chans, Tans, Caballeros, Sanchezs, Carrasquillos, Triantifliakos, Nguyens. Quincy High offered the only English as a Second Language program within the surrounding cities. We were the Ellis Island of high schools, a shelter for the newly arrived Albanians, Romanians, Greek, Chinese, and Vietnamese. I heard “Speak English!” snarls directed at the groups of immigrant students and watched a boy spit in a Chinese girl’s face as he strode past her in the hall.
The most prevalent first languages of Quincy residents now are, in descending order, English, Mandarin or Cantonese, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Italian. Along with Presidents Plaza in Quincy Center and stores like Abigail’s Crossing where I first bought my mother’s dolls that pay homage to the Adams, the city’s main street, Hancock Street, is now lined with a Mongolian hot pot joint, a Brazilian barbecue, several Chinese, Thai, and Punjabi restaurants, Pinoy and Indian groceries, and trendy sushi bars where local bands play. After school, kids drive to Kan Man, an Asian grocery center, for bubble tea and pho.
Recently, though, while jogging in Quincy, another friend of mine was hit by a baseball hurtled out of a passing car along with yells of Go back to China. The ball left a monstrous mark on her arm, the sickly yellows and indigos so saturated they looked like they bloomed from the core of her small bicep.
The songs that most of us recognize as carols date back thousands of years. They were originally pagan songs sung during celebrations of fruitful harvests and seasonal solstices in Europe. During the early seventeenth century, after Christians adapted these songs to celebrate the birth of Christ, carolers began singing door-to-door, in public spaces, and at home. Peasants roamed about singing for their suppers at the doors of the wealthy, and the celebration of the birth of Christ was an especially generous time when lords invited poor villagers to their manors to feast and drink. Groups of young men called wassailers would sing good tidings in exchange for food or money. Neighbors learned the same songs and sang them in unison with and for each other; caroling was a community event. In the 1994 film version of Little Women, the March sisters sing “The Wassail Song” as they take food, arm-in-arm, to their impoverished neighbors on Christmas morning.
Looking at the latest line of Caroler dolls on the Byers’ Choice web site, I was surprised and pleased to see that the African-American line is growing: there are African-American Salvation Army dolls and African-American Santa and Mrs. Claus dolls. Black toddler figurines in the “Winter Fun” edition decorate eighteen-inch trees outfitted in mini blinking lights, and sled and hold snowballs alongside white dolls. In their arms they bear the same accessories as their white counterparts: wrapped gifts, toy trains and teddy bears, candy canes and wreaths, gelatin molds and gingerbread houses. My favorites are the African-American Sock Hop Girl in a baby blue cardigan set and poodle skirt clasping a tiny Elvis Presley record to her chest, and the African-American Sock Hop Boy sporting a letterman sweater, a football the size of a lozenge tucked under his arm.
Within the Thanksgiving Caroler edition there’s even a Native American family now: a solemn-faced father, a mother wearing a string of colorful beads with a papoose strapped to her back, and two older children in moccasins, carrying baskets of maize and vegetables.
There are no Asian-American carolers.
Not all of the graffiti on my family’s old front door was racist or hateful. I remember the declarations of love with initials and hearts and the repeated scrawls of someone practicing his tag name in different inks, the tails of y’s and g’s dipping sharply in some renderings, rounder in others. Mostly, people simply stated their presence on our steps, variations of Nadine waz HERE and 5-14-91 TJ and Amanda K. Even after my father applied several layers of paint, it looked like everyone in the neighborhood had been at our door. Although the scribbling was innocuous enough, it reminded us that this was their neighborhood. Each etching was like a dog marking its territory.
Surely I was not the only kid thoroughly fatigued with colonial American history; the kids who defaced our front door grew up with the same stories I was taught. Why can’t I remember learning about any other Native-Americans than Squanto, the native guide of Plymouth Colony’s commander Myles Standish? The indigenous peoples of Boston’s South Shore are commemorated mainly through school athletic teams: the Hanover Indians, Blue Hills Warriors, Braintree Wamps, South Shore Christian Academy Warriors, and Quincy’s own rivals, North’s Red Raiders. To some of these teams, showing up to games in red-face is their way of honoring Native-Americans.
Each year Quincy holds the largest Christmas Parade in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, the time when our tree used to go up. The Parade is part of a weeklong celebration of events including the arrival of Santa and his elves—airdropped by parachute into Pageant Field—and the annual “Turning on the Lights” in the city center. My parents never took us to these events, and we never asked to go. Every Christmas Eve, instead of going to St. Boniface church just several streets from our apartment as we did each Sunday, we drove the seven miles or so to St. Peter’s in Dorchester for Vietnamese service, where my usually sullen older brother belted out hymns with the choir and my sister and I twirled in our matching holiday dresses. I think my parents felt uneasy sharing a pew at Christmas with the Irish-American family we hardly spoke to that lived next door, about reading along to scriptures they couldn’t quite grasp with the freckled mother who narrowed her eyes each time she saw us come into our shared backyard.
Maybe it’s the glow from the new miniature lamppost from the Caroler collection my brother ordered that literally cast my mother’s dolls in a new light or the realization that they’ve been with our family for so long, but I’m regarding the arrangement on the bay window sill of my parents’ house—their own and no longer in Germantown—with less skepticism this year. Looking at the Carolers’ open mouths, I try imagining beautiful ballad rather than pain or ugliness spilling from them.
I imagine other things, too. Maybe back in Germantown some night I might have straightened from my crouch behind the window where I conducted my worried spying and drawn the curtain aside. I might have shown myself to those kids on our old doorstep. The huge blinking tree on the rotary will illuminate their figures against the darkening street. They’ll drop their beers and black Sharpies silently onto the grass, and taking the cold air into their lungs, open their mouths to sing.
Titi Nguyen lives in New York City, and therefore was too busy to get a Christmas tree this year. Find her at titinguyen.net.