The Lion-Crab: A Christmas Tragedy

Some of the best memories are fantasies.


I created the first Lion-Crab when I was eleven. Ugly thing. Hideous. It was the product of the imagination of a small boy and the skill set of a much smaller boy. I’m sure you’re caught right now between, “Why a Lion-Crab?” and “What’s a Lion-Crab?” Perhaps some background is necessary.

The summer mornings of my boyhood were often occupied by Cal Camp. Situated in the woods east of the Berkeley campus between Memorial Stadium and the Botanical Gardens, Strawberry Canyon played host to Cal Camp, a babysitting tool run by failed Girl Scout counselors posing as grad students. Being that the place was roughly 85% swimming pools (the lap kind, not the fun kind), one hour in every three at camp was devoted to swimming lessons. God help you if you drew the 9 a.m. swim time. With all due respect to Mark Twain, the coldest winter I ever spent was that summer on Berkeley’s outer campus.

While it was possible to have fun at Cal Camp, it wasn’t terribly likely to happen and mostly considered an aberration or failed planning. Activities one might find at a neighborhood picnic like softball, potato sack races, or Red Rover were not options.  Why play something you might like when “Weight Lifting” and “Wrestling” were options? C’mon, li’l Billy, doncha want to do some squat thrusts and then put Kenny in a half-Nelson? Sure, that sounds grand.

The year I turned 11, I held my nose and reluctantly chose “Arts & Crafts” for my third hour. “We’re making stuffed animals.” Huh. Well, gee, don’t tell anybody, but that actually sounds kinda cool. Sure, I could take the masculine high road of “sewing is for sissies,” but, truth be told, I was actually curious about how one makes a stuffed animal. And what’s this?  I can make anything.  Really?  Anything at all.  Anything my imagination can conjure.  Hmmm, what would I make? Dog? Bear? Dinosaur? While contemplating the spectrum of possibilities, I remembered my soon-to-arrive birthday. And then I remembered astrology.

Now, it isn’t like I’m actually on the cusp of Leo (the Lion) and Cancer (the Crab), but some sources say my birthday is a Leo and some say it’s Cancer.  Make up your mind, jerks; it’s not like this shit is real. For the life of me, I have never put a single ounce of belief into my horoscope … but sometimes I like to see by birthday in print. And while I didn’t care if I met a tall, dark Virgo or needed to avoid Sagittarians bearing gifts, I was fascinated with the idea of a Lion-Crab meld – a chimeraic beast of absolutely no grace whatsoever, but it would certainly have a lot of funky legs.

So a Lion-Crab it would be, an awesome biological marvel with lion paws and gaping jaw and pincers and a red mane and antennae and scuttly li’l crab legs leading to an orange tail. I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like, but, let’s face it, I was eleven and had never held a sewing needle in my life.  Can your eyes be bigger than your stomach in the world of refrigerator art?

Suffice to say, my imagination eclipsed my skill set by a fair margin.  After working on this disaster five hours a week for a month or so, the design slowly evolved into reality.  And the reality made me want to cry. The elements of my Lion-Crab were present, but the awesome was nowhere to be found. The limp-necked banana-like beast stretched almost two feet in length, including a stringy mane of red-orange yarn and a long, equine-ish yellow snout (cuz, you know, just like a lion). It had several legs of varying sizes. Two paws were yellow. Two pincers were red and slew of outer limbs were various shades of red based on what the camp’s fabric box had to offer. Some were felt; some were polyester, and some were paisley manglings from what might have once been a necktie. The shark-like teeth and eyes were hand drawn on the yellow fabric. Oooh, scary. Most of the limbs were sewn together with the adolescent hand of one too impatient to do the job properly. Often, the only thing that kept the hand-shoved cotton stuffing from leaking out of limbs were strategically placed single black stitches. Entire legs showed no more than five or six Frankensteinian iterations with the thread. There wasn’t a single feature of this beast that could possibly mistaken for something one might spend money on.  Lion-Crab was a creature only a mother could love … and I can’t say that I loved him. But I certainly owned him.


I grew up in a large house. It needed to be large; there were seven of us. It wasn’t terribly pretty, but like the Lion-Crab I’d made, it was large. The location couldn’t be beat: Oakland Hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The address said, “Privilege.” The house, for the most part, did not. It did, however, have one indulgent feature. The house I grew up in had a two-story living room, twenty feet high floor-to-ceiling. It was as if the architect just up and forgot to put an upstairs over that part of the house. Not unlike a model looking for a big break, the house was well-aware of its best feature and played it for all it was worth. The jai-alai-court-sized living room centerpiece featured two indoor entrances opposite a grand fire place. The wall flanking the fire place on the street side opened with double French doors to the front porch. Opposite the double doors on the view side of the house was a huge arching bay window, easily 15 feet at its maximum height. If every other feature of this lived-in sunless Hobbit-hole made you cry, that window would make you cheer.

My father is an engineer and he got it into his head that a 20’ tall ceiling should host a 20’ Christmas tree. Sure. Why not? In the living room, there are literally cubic yards of space that never gets used. Of course, even during the height of the season, corner lots don’t sell 20’ Christmas trees. Nor do they sell stands that can accommodate the base of a 20’ Christmas tree. There’s also that tiny little issue of, “If you located a 20’ Christmas tree, how would you get it into your living room?”

Oh, if only my father were this kind of problem solver where my education was involved. Using tightrope tensing technology, the man constructed a custom-made tree stand out of plywood and bracing wire. Then, he temporarily exchanged the family sedan for a truck. All seven of us (four on the inside, three on the outside) would pile into the truck and he’d take us to a tree farm 30 minutes away. Riding in the back of a truck isn’t a terribly pleasant experience even when it’s not December. Just sayin’.

At the tree lot, we’d scout, fell, and drag an unwitting tree (you thought you were free, huh? Maybe figured you’d grown too large for Christmas. Think again, Piney) back to the truck where my dad would secure it with a Houdini-like level of meticulous. That tree would have to be a master to get itself free from the truck in under five minutes. The ride home was more crowded, of course, several heads poking out of branches in the rear half of the vehicle. It was kind of like climbing a tree horizontally. At home, the French doors were flung open for the one and only time of the year. After de-entangling the rope bit, the process started afresh with several strings of Christmas lights. You have to pre-light this monster; you couldn’t do it while it was upright. And then all seven of us took up positions under the tree like a galley crew or a set of pallbearers, and slowly, very slowly we’d drag it indoors where the stump was attached to the stand.  And then we would reenact the obelisk scene from The Ten Commandments. Half-way up the now vertical tree at 60 degree intervals, my father attached piano wire from the core to the beams in the ceiling. That wasn’t pretty, either, but between the wire and the base, that tree was going to stand. Dammit.

Now, you wouldn’t believe it, but a tree big enough for the 30Rock Plaza contains a lot of ornaments. Sometimes, we just kinda ran out and my mother would improvise. Anything would do, really. One year, we all made pillow pals, attached hooks and *poof* insta-ornaments.

Our angel looked like it had seen better days. Who knew how old it was, really? The dark gold figure of papier-mâcrinoline in the distant upper stratosphere of the room stood arms folded as if daring criticism. Of course from that height, it was beyond critique and more like a carney’s foil at the county fair, “step right up and see if you can knock the little lady down.” As I grew taller, I assumed the right to top the tree as it were. This involved standing at the apex of a ten-foot step-ladder, one arm gripping a ceiling beam, the other extended and wielding a broomstick from the brush end. At the handle end, the angel would dangle precariously by her folded arms. With some effort, patience, and gamesmanship, the figure could be looped by a cord in the back to the tallest spire of the tree. Yes, it was more like a carnival game or a rite-of-passage than any attempt to sanctify our new evergreen.

The placing of the angel was part of the decorating ritual until it was observed that –due to college- I was no longer able to be present for the collection and gussyupification portions of the holiday. I’d like to think my people “saved” the angel for me to affix when I returned for the holidays, but truth is likelier that it fell down at some point before I got home and I just happened to be available to rectify the situation at opportune times.

Bald patches in the tree were often assumed by larger ornaments and the occasional stuffed animal. That all stands to reason. In addition, my mother would place some very large stuffed beasts and nutcracker-like felt creations at the base to “guard” the tree and the treasures it held.  One year when I was a young teen, I came home from high school to find Lion-Crab, long since forgotten in a closet, among the soldiers.  Lion-Crab, born of the summer in several ways, was now a member of Christmas.

Much like the start (or end) of a NASCAR race, there is a pole position element to Christmas ornaments. Few acknowledge this, but it’s true. The angel is the #1 ornament on the tree. The ones beneath are like her color guard and descending downwards (in both physical presence and importance) are handmade treasures, hallmark indulgences and various knickknacks. Sure, you’ll put a few things exactly at eye level that you’ll want to show off, but -generally- importance is marked by height off the ground … at least it sure as Hell was on tree as tall as ours.

The following Christmas, Lion-Crab made the tree itself. I’d like to say I was stunned, especially as LC was now stowed in the ornament boxes, but I was. I came home and there was a healthy foot-and-a-half between my creation and the floor. Lion-Crab was no longer a base guard; Lion-Crab was a decoration. A hideous, hideous decoration.

Each year, I’d return from college to find Lion-Crab steadily ascending the tree. Freshman year, he was at chest height. Two years later, he was out of reach. Climbing the charts like a hit single, Lion-Crab always seemed to be slightly higher for each new season of my schooling. In the fall of 1990, I was law school and that Yuletide season, Lion-Crab had ascended to the angel’s feet. LC was now ranked Lieutenant Angel, as high an honor as any ornament could expect or hope. A full nineteen feet off the ground, Lion-Crab was practically airborne himself. I couldn’t help but exhibit great pride over this. Oh yes, that thing, my thing, was stull butt-ugly. Perhaps as his mother, I was the last to recognize a certain charm to the Quasimodo-like nature of my creation; and here he was at the bell tower for all to see. Or, perhaps, it was better to keep him as far away from human eyes as possible. Tough call.

And then, the impossible announcement happened. Quietly, and without much fanfare, my mother told me that Lion-Crab would be angel next year. The beast would be beauty for the first time in its life. I dunno where the established angel was supposed to go, but I sure didn’t question the decision. Our regular angel was more of an incumbent post-holder than a necessity; why shouldn’t a Lion-Crab top the tree? Maybe the year after next, we could put one of my sibs’ goofy ornament at the top of the tree. I sure didn’t mind. But next year, in the Christmas of 1991, Lion-Crab would take top honors in the house.  For me, Christmas of 1991 would be extra special.

This, of course, never happened. In October of 1991, a wild fire, a fire storm as it was called, tore through the Oakland Hills, claiming 1,500 acres, 3,000 houses, and 25 lives. On the afternoon of Sunday, October 20, the house I grew up in and everything in it, including Lion-Crab, was incinerated in a flash. The failed promise of Lion-Crab ascension here is hardly the greatest tragedy of the event –and, truth be told, it wasn’t on my mind while the fire raged and consumed- but as time wore on, this was the part of the fire storm that bothered me most. You can chalk it up to white privilege or misplaced object affection or some random psychological shortcoming; I don’t really care. There was an acknowledgment that the creation I found embarrassing was, in reality, endearing, and a promise within that acknowledgment would never be fulfilled.


A lot of people lose homes. We know this. The shocking part of the Oakland fire storm was not that houses were burned, but that entire neighborhoods were razed. That’s not normal; that’s “rages of war” kinda stuff.  Of course, now this phenomena isn’t terribly uncommon in residential areas. Ask New Orleans. Ask Houston. Ask the entire island of Puerto Rico.

What do people miss when they lose everything? Let’s start here: What didn’t I miss? Anything that could be replaced. Clothes, furniture, electronics. Most of it means nothing. This, of course, is a much bigger discussion centering around the psychology of loss; that’s a different essay. For now, I simply mention that I missed very little. I owned some cool things, sure – moon landing newspaper, signed picture of Dr. J playing tennis, Robin Yount mini rookie baseball card. Truth? If it could it be replaced, then, no, I didn’t miss it … and probably didn’t replace it, either.

How about photographs? Everybody misses photographs, right? HA! I’m a middle child. I wasn’t even the first boy; you think family photos hold any special magic for me? I suppose I miss the family holiday pics where one of us was invariably in tears, oh! And especially the one where my younger brother went to Christmas wearing a “Six Million Dollar Man” costume. Thanks to the invention of awkwardfamilyphotos, however, I can’t say that one was a total loss.

No, what I missed were the measures of unique personal accomplishment – the rug I stitched when I was ten, papers I’d written, an earned trophy or two, the rare positive test score, a stool I made in shop class, and Lion-Crab. That’s what you miss when your childhood goes up in smoke. Souvenirs? Pffft. It’s just junk. Yeah, the stuff I made is junk, too, but it’s the junk I made. You can’t replace that, just like only I can tell this story.

Well, here’s the good news: time happens. Time may not heal all wounds; in fact, I find just the opposite. But time allows for perspective. Glorious perspective. And at some point, I got to the position of

“Well, Jim, why *can’t* you replace Lion-Crab?”
Why? Because I’m not eleven.
“That’s right. You are not eleven. Don’t you think you could do the project justice now? Maybe make something closer to the Lion-Crab of your imagination rather than the one of your eleven-year-old reality?”
Huh. Maybe. But it won’t be the one I lost.
“No, it won’t. But it might just be the one you’re proud of when you make it. Now stop arguing with yourself and get a book on creating stuffed animals.”

By then, of course, I was living in an apartment, and I’d be remiss in not pointing out that the voice of reason above was probably more my wife than myself, bless her. The Lion-Crab I created was a thing of beauty, but it didn’t fit on top of the tree. I still made the thing too large for a normal apartment-sized tree. I would have to make another. And maybe a few more. For the smaller ones, I’d make wing-and-halo attachments, so they could be angels only when the situation required.

That was twenty years ago … and a Lion-Crab, usually Garth or Rance –they now have names– has graced the angel position of our Christmas tree every year since.

Maybe next year, I’ll tell you about the rugs.

This is Garth, our current angel.



One Response to “The Lion-Crab: A Christmas Tragedy” Subscribe

  1. A2 December 25, 2017 at 6:41 pm #

    Great story. I was taken aback by the dark turn at the end of act 2 but I think you nailed the landing.

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