November 26, 2018

Oh Christmas Tree

My kids woke me up at the break of dawn the day after Thanksgiving. “Mommy! We need to put up the Christmas tree!” I’m not one of those people who insist that there shall be no hint of Christmas before Thanksgiving, and in some past years, I’ve brought out all the holiday decorations in mid-November.

As we unfolded and quickly erected our pre-lit tree, my husband and I remarked how much easier it is to set up a modern tree than the kind we had when we were kids. The trees from my childhood had individual branches which had to be fluffed and arranged in a certain order according to a color band painted on the middle wire which had rubbed off. I remember plugging in strings of lights, checking each individual bulb, trying to find the dud which spoiled the entire strand and then carefully arranging those 10+ strings of lights on the tree, making sure every branch was evenly lit (yes, a tree should have that many lights).

Within a few minutes, our tree was up. I plugged it in—and then only half of the lights turned on. As I’d do with any faulty piece of electronics, I tried to fix it by giving it a good shake. A few of the dark areas lit up, but not all. Instead of painstakingly inspecting each bulb like my parents did in the past, I declared our tree a dud which will be replaced next year. I have no idea how my parents' generation survived the holidays. No wonder my mom delayed decorating as long as possible.

Of course, now that the tree is up, my kids ask all the time if it’s Christmas and if they can open presents. Perhaps I should have waited a couple more weeks to start the process.

I’ve met people who claim that white lights are the only appropriate way to light a tree and others who believe colorful lights are much better. But everyone seemed to agree that the two styles clashed. My mother-in-law is the first person I’ve met who was dumbfounded that someone would want to restrict their lights to a single style. In addition to white and colorful lights, she liked to use big bulbs and little bulbs, steady lights and twinkle lights, and even some of those bubble lights. By the time she was done stringing lights on her tree, it was a supernova of Christmas spirit.

One year when I was younger, a friend from school excitedly explained that her family would use her choice of red and silver ornaments that year. I was astonished that anyone would want to buy and give away new ornaments every single year. What about all of the keepsakes collected over time and injected with fond memories? What’s the point of even having a tree without special things to display on it? My friend was an army brat, so holding onto boxes of nostalgic items just didn’t make sense for a family that moved every few years. Her special memory was that of getting to create something new and magical every year. The collection of temporary ornaments held just as much joy as my favorite ornaments which were familiar year after year.

Only once did I have a ‘real’ tree. It wasn’t really even mine since it spent the holidays at a friend’s house. The whole picking-out-a-live-tree trip was a new experience for me and not anything like I’d imagined since this was in sunny California. I didn’t think to line the trunk of my car before putting a huge, cut plant in there, and it was covered in stubborn needles for at least a year. Getting the thing upright was non-trivial, and the needles were so pokey I had a hard time putting decorations on it. However, it smelled nice, which is the only pro I can remember. After not getting water for the entire month of January, the dried-out shrub got chopped up and burned in a barrel. Even then, it smelled nice.

With all the memories and nostalgia packed into just the idea of a Christmas tree, even seeing a pine with baubles on it or a fake plant indoors and strung with lights makes me smile. And now I have the responsibility of building those memories with my kids. Maybe one day they’ll be surprised to see a family tree that has only little white lights, few enough ornaments that you can actually see the tree underneath, or one that doesn’t have a kitty sleeping under it 24/7.

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