Every family has its own special holiday traditions, but most of them don’t involve a giant ape. Risa Nye shares the legend of King Kong, Christmas style.
Many people have lovely angel ornaments that grace the tops of their Christmas trees. Not my family, though. We don’t have an angel; we have King Kong.
Four years into our marriage, I finally let my husband talk me into getting a tree of our own. I’d had my reasons for resisting. We had three cats, we lived in a small apartment, and since I grew up in a Jewish family, I was not accustomed to having a tree in my living room for weeks at a time. He wore me down, though, and when I relented at last, he dashed out the door promising he would bring home a beautiful tree and protect it with a cat-proof barrier that he would make himself.
“Not too big?” I pleaded, as he raced out.
“Right!” he answered, as excited as, well, a kid on Christmas morning.
“And ornaments?” I yelled after him.
“Sure thing!” he said.
Because my mother-in-law used to transform the family home into a jolly red and white winter wonderland with Santas and reindeer on every possible horizontal surface every December, I trusted that my husband would have the know-how to choose appropriate ornaments with which to decorate our first tree. I awaited his return, eager to begin a new tradition with special ornaments that we would hand down to the children we might have one day.
He came back some time later with a lovely, fragrant, and not too-big tree, some lumber and hardware, and a few other things. But oh, those other things!
I’m still not sure why, but he’d decided to visit the local toy store and had returned home with a big bag full of the ugliest plastic animals I’d ever seen. I’m talking about dinosaurs and water buffalo and pigs and giraffes — each one more hideous than the last. Among these badly painted monstrosities was a rubber ape, with one arm raised menacingly over his head.
“What were you thinking, exactly?” I asked him when he proudly presented his sorry collection of would-be ornaments. I guess he may have thought something at the time, but wisely decided to keep it to himself. Instead, we put the bag of animals aside, and the two of us went to the store and bought a string of lights, bags of cranberries and popcorn and tinsel and a few small ornaments. I spent a delightful afternoon stringing the popcorn and cranberries and placing the ornaments and strands of tinsel just so on the “not too big, is it?” tree. Those ugly animals disappeared somehow, but we kept the rubber ape and gave him the place of honor atop the tree. The cats kept a close eye on the whole process, tails and ears twitching.
The next year, we got a slightly bigger tree and added a few more ornaments. And we had our first baby. In the years that followed, we got more ornaments, had more babies, and bought bigger trees.
Once they got old enough to ask, “Where did King Kong come from?” we took each of our three children aside and explained the tradition. To their credit, they accepted the fact that their parents were a little goofy and let it go at that. They all helped decorate the tree every December as we hung their handmade ornaments along with the ones we accumulated over the years. The big moment always came when Dad got up on the step stool and placed King Kong at the very top.
When our house burned to the ground in October, 1991, in the tragic Oakland Hills fire, we were left with the clothes on our backs and not much else. We packed up the few things we had taken with us when we evacuated, and moved into a rental house in a nearby town. Before we knew it, the holidays were upon us. My husband and I realized that there was no way to replace fifteen years’ worth of acquired Christmas decorations and ornaments. Some were just plain irreplaceable, but others…
With fingers crossed, we drove back to that toy store to see if we could find a replacement for Old King Kong. What joy we felt when we spied the menacing little fellow in a bin full of other beasts! We purchased the new guy, along with a few reindeer, and brought them back to our temporary home, where we had a subdued Christmas in the still unfamiliar house.
It’s funny how a little rubber animal helped turn our house into a home just by waving to us from his lofty perch. Even though our lives changed forever that year, the happy return of our faithful tree-topper made us feel as though we were somehow on the way back to normal.
In our family, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without King Kong.