Part of the blogging experience is visiting other blogs – for advice, for ideas, and in the case of this post, for inspiration. I recently visited Visionary Gleam, where Jim Lewis posted “O Tanenbox, O Tanenbox,” a humorous and poignant look at his family’s Christmas tree tradition and the story of the ornaments.
I am a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to this most wonderful time of year, a fact that seems to worsen as I age. Jim’s well-written post, however, has left me thinking. A lot.
No matter how cynical I have become, the Christmas tree has always remained my favorite part of the holiday. Now, as I drive around town and peek into the windows of my neighbors and see their decorated trees, I wonder about their stories – and I reflect on the ghosts of my own Christmas trees past – long past and recent past.
There’s a handwritten sentence in the baby book my mother started for me when I was first born. There, in her cursive writing, is a brief sentence about the moment when the love affair began: “2 1/2 years old . Really knows what it’s all about . . . He says the tree has meatballs and a star.”
Although I cannot remember that particular tree (but I would love a tree with meatballs), my first recollection of a Christmas tree was a large, green artificial one. Its branches, which had to be inserted into the trunk, looked like bottle brushes. I remember one early Christmas when my sister and I cut strips of red and green construction paper, looped them and interlocked them to make a chain, which still makes its annual appearance on my parents’ tree. Today, when I visit them, I can still see the handiwork of an 8 and 4 year old – not to mention my sister’s handmade angel ornament, with its toilet paper roll body, wings and head – and no neck.
A few years later, my father received a sleigh-full set of HO gauge trains and Plasticville buildings from his father. On the day after Thanksgiving, my sister and I were given strict orders to stay out of the den – and we listened to that order, never peaking inside to investigate what was happening in there. Each night, my father and mother would disappear into that room, carrying lumber and train tracks and a giant Christmas tree. Meanwhile, my sister and I strung cotton balls onto black thread – and these too disappeared into the room.
Then the morning came when my sister and I were lead into the den, eyes shut tight. Once inside, the door closed behind us, we opened our eyes and looked into pitch blackness. With the flick of a switch, organ and chimes carols started, and street lamps were lit. Then houses and shops and the farm, their lights glittering on the mica snow. Trains began to circle the town, passing in front of mountains in the distance. At last, the tree was lit, swirled in angel hair and visible through a blizzard of cotton balls.
It was an absolutely magical moment, one that delighted kids and adults as my family hosted an open house throughout the holiday season. What I remember most of these days is the peace found in that room, how neighbors would arrive to sit in there just to breathe, how joy could be delivered from a model train set, how the simplest of ideas (although monumental in my parents’ efforts) truly captured all that Christmas should be – something that seems to have gotten lost in today’s world. These photos, taken on an old camera decades ago and now scanned, capture small moments from that display.
Fast forward to my first Christmas tree with Joe. Prior to meeting me, he had lived alone and already had his own idea of how a Christmas tree should look. He explained that he always gets a live tree, and it’s decorated in white lights, red ornaments, red bows and white candles (which we can no longer light because I won’t let him).
I think “perplexed” would be the word to describe the look on my face. No colored lights? Ornaments all of one color? No garland or tinsel? Where’s the beauty in that kind of tree? I suddenly felt like Lucy in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” horrified at the pathetic tree that Charlie Brown brought to the school auditorium.
Nevertheless, I trusted Joe’s Christmas aesthetic, and once it was decorated, I had to admit that it was a beauty – something worthy of a Macy’s window display. I remember thinking that maybe I need to be more open and tolerant of trees that were decorated differently – although, I do place one ornament on the tree that isn’t red; it’s the ornament that commemorates our first Christmas together.
In a previous post, I mentioned my bi-zonality. This is best illustrated in a tree story. Early in our relationship, I worked in NYC. It was cloudy and cold and gray, and it smelled like snow – but nothing fell from the sky. On the train ride home, the further east I traveled, the snow on the platforms became deeper and deeper. By the time I reached home, there was a foot of snow – what better night to go get a Christmas tree.
Joe and I bundled up, grabbed the sled and trudged through the streets to the tree lot a few block away. There, under the white lights strung between the poles, we selected a tree – a process in and of itself – carried it onto the sled, and made the walk home, curtains of snow twirling around us, the only light coming from the neighbors’ Christmas lights.
By the time we reached home, we were numb and exhilarated; frozen and warm. That moment is the closest I have ever come to a Christmas from an earlier, simpler time. We were in a Norman Rockwell painting. We were running down Main Street with George Bailey in Bedford Falls. It’s a wonderful life.
I know this post breaks all of the unwritten rules of post length — but, like I said, Jim Lewis’s post on Visionary Gleam had me thinking a lot. Thank you for sticking with it.
Enjoy the holiday season — and enjoy the trees and the memories they create.