Sunday, December 07, 2008

O Christmas Tree

When I was little, my father would supervise while my brothers, sister and I decorated the family Christmas tree. Though plastic or aluminum trees were all the rage in the 60s, we always had a real tree, the intoxicating smell of pine filling the downstairs of our New Jersey home. He would sit back in his leather butterfly chair, a gin & tonic in one hand, his omnipresent pipe in the other, and direct us in tinsel application as if he were conducting a symphony, the cherry wood pipe floating through the air like a baton. We had to put the lead tinsel on the branches one strand at a time. Whenever his attention would wander we would fling fistfuls up at the branches in front of us, and then when he looked back, resume our single strand application. He always noticed though. Despite the tight restrictions, it was a festive time, the turntable spilling out carols into the evening air, my mother baking in the kitchen, and my siblings actually being nice to me.

Despite the promises we make ourselves that we will not recreate the irritating habits our parents inflicted on us, they sometimes pop up like weeds. When I got my first apartment, I was so excited about creating my own Christmas tree without the restrictions of my family traditions. My Brooklyn apartment was decorated almost entirely in mauve and cream (give me a break, it was the 80s) and I spent that November carefully choosing and purchasing tasteful Victorian-style ornaments that matched my home. By mid-December I had the perfect tree; it looked as if I walked out of Gimbel’s seasonal department, hauling it over my shoulder in its entirety, lace trailing behind. I moved the ornaments with me to Vermont, and continued to collect pieces appropriate to the theme.

When I had my son, I considered how I would adapt the handmade ornaments he would undoubtedly come home with from day care to my carefully maintained tree design. For his second Christmas I installed a small tree in his room, complete with his own child- friendly ornaments (a transportation theme…scary, huh?) and twinkling primary colored lights. My son showed no interest in his little tree, gravitating towards the larger one in the living room with its monochromatic white lights. He would sit on the rug and joyfully rearrange the carefully placed ornaments. After he went to bed I would return the tree to its pristine state.

In between seasons we would store our Christmas tree decorations in a large plastic box in a loft in our garage. That year I had been given a large glass snowglobe that I carefully wrapped and placed in with the decorations. Well, during the change of seasons the water froze, then expanded and the globe shattered. In the summer the icy guts of the globe melted all over the tasteful ornaments, eventually molding them beyond recognition over the long hot summer. That December when I opened the box and discovered the green furry remnants of my decorations, a full range of feelings rushed through me: grief, repulsion, amusement but the loudest and most surprising was relief. I was free. That weekend I took my young son with me and we ran around Ames, purchasing relatively inexpensive, brightly colored ornaments with no thought to theme. Over the years the white lights have been replaced with colored ones, and the tree is every color of the rainbow, with his handmade ornaments looking right at home.

The Christmas tree is just one example of the many things in life that I have learned to let go of, to have fun with through my role as parent. That year I was reminded that Christmas is indeed a child’s holiday, and that, thankfully, it comes in colors other than mauve and cream, and though my son has grown and toys have been replaced with electronics, I remember that particular holiday with nostalgia. That was the greatest Christmas gift I’ve ever received…one that will not be forgotten.

Happy Holidays, gentle readers!

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