The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past

§   This year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my tree for the first time, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me.  §

When I was a small child, my father one holiday season brought home  a tiny, thin book titled An Ancient Story of The Christ Child. I have the book still. It is bound in green velveteen, tied at the spine with a gold cord. It is beautifully illustrated, and a yellow Christmas star illuminates each page of text.

I loved the story, which is based on the moral of being kind to strangers, for by doing so, one may, all unaware, entertain saints or angels. But above all, I loved the illustration of the Christmas tree. My child self thought it was the most wonderful Christmas tree I’d ever seen: hung about with polished red apples, and trimmed with popcorn strings and candles.Christmas Story_20191022_0001 (2)

Many years later, as an adult living in South Carolina, I stopped in an ancient dimestore one afternoon near the holidays. There, as if waiting for me, were shining little red apple ornaments, and strings of plastic popcorn and wooden cranberries. I could not resist. For that Christmas and several that followed, my inner child thrilled to a red apple and popcorn decorated Christmas tree.

Eventually, those apple ornaments of painted styrofoam began to deteriorate; the plastic popcorn yellowed; the cranberries lost their color. I reluctantly retired them for more modern decorations.

My lovely red apple tree had not been my first holiday tree, though. As a 19-year-old living in a one-room apartment in the slums, with no money to speak of and only a kitten for company, I’d scrounged to buy a little three-foot tree, tromping through slush and snow in the dark to purchase it. I crafted cheap ornaments from painted plaster of  Paris, using bent paperclips as hangers. That little tree and plaster ornaments served me for several years, cheering me as I returned home evenings to my lonely digs. It apparently cheered my kitten, too, who viewed the small tree as a pine-scented cat toy! Abandoning my evergreen room spray, I bought a concoction called “Cat No!’ and doused the tree liberally with it. It smelled awful, but it did deter Doski’s forays into Christmas tree destruction. (And to this day, I weirdly associate the smell of cat repellant with Christmas.)

In the years that followed, my Christmas trees were garlanded with beads of gold and silver and hung with silver bells, some topped by a star, others by an angel. I enjoyed each new version, always taking photos, especially after the tree had been lit and the gifts piled high at its base. I learned to place a hook in the ceiling and tie the tree to it with nearly-invisible fishing line, so that my cats could not, despite their best efforts, tip it over. I learned, too, to place only unbreakable ornaments within the reach of their sneaky little paws, and never to drape tinsel where it could be swallowed. (One cat, Domino, was nicknamed “Tinsel Butt” for months following the holidays.)

Following my divorce I divested myself of old holiday decorations and their associations with the Christmases of my failed marriage. I  briefly considered the newly-revived “shiny aluminum trees”,  rejecting them after realizing that nothing would ever equal my Grandmother’s aluminum tree, rotating to a color wheel and laden with pink glass ornaments.  Instead, I loaded up on red velveteen ribbon to garland my tree, pairing it with golden ornaments.  Later I traded out the aging velveteen for wide ribbon in Stewart plaid, and acquired a set of tiny brown glass acorn ornaments to scatter amongst the gold. I dispensed with the cat-menacing tinsel and began using realistic plastic icicles.

SnowQueenTree (2)Finally, having grown weary of the red/gold theme and its links to some less-than-joyous Christmas days, I gave away all my decorations and began completely anew with a fresh tree of opalescent ribbons and turquoise and silver ornaments.  The Snow Queen tree, I called it: frosty and icy and different.

No doubt I’ll enjoy my Snow Queen Tree for years to come.  And yet, this year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my  tree for the first time, stepping back to admire my handiwork, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me. A little child—myself—stood staring in wonder at a tall, tall, green tree, garlanded in polished red apples and strings of popcorn and white candles—staring in wonderment and joy, while a visiting angel held her by the hand.

Merry Whatever-Doesn’t-Offend You!  As my blog posts are published on Wednesdays, I will be taking Christmas and New Year’s days off.  My best love and blessings to you and yours for a peaceful, healthy and joyous holiday.  See you the first week of 2020! 

Lopsided No More

§   On December 12, 2018, I published a blog post about my lopsided Christmas tree. Well, much like Star Wars, the saga continues…  §

I hit the Lopsided Tree with my car again.

Damn teeny one-car garage.

Damn teeny-tiny Christmas tree boxes that the disassembled tree never, never ever, fits back into after the season is over.

The Lopsided Tree was parked in a corner of my garage, fully assembled but with branches compacted and wound about with twine to keep them in place. And, yes, the duct-taped-and-tied-on-with-ribbon top branch was still in place, lopsided as all get-out, but appealing and cute.

But at some point during the summer months, the tree must have fallen over as I exited the garage, bent on some errand. Bent, indeed! For I returned and, easing into my narrow, short, not-SUV-ready garage, I failed to stop in time before cruising over the tumbled tree.

Ooops.

This time it was not the injured top branch which bore the brunt of the damage. Instead, several of the umbrella branches—the quick-set type which just open into place–crunched under the car tires. They were loose and floppy and quite obviously irreparable.  Examining the damage, I sighed, gave the lopsided tree the last rites, pushed it upright back into its corner, and made space in my budget to begin saving toward a replacement tree.

And so it came to pass that late October  (yeah, I know, it wasn’t even Halloween yet, but the Christmas displays were already prominent in all the stores) found me on the hunt for a new Christmas tree. After several disappointing false starts, I ventured far down the road to a home goods store where I had in the past experienced great luck in finding the obscure things I wanted. It was there I discovered my new little tree: much shorter than the lopsided tree, but prelit and with the soft, fluffy branches the manufacturers like to call “cashmere”.  I lifted the compact box (the box into which the tree, next January, was sure to never again fit!) into my cart.

But in the months since I had inadvertently destroyed the lopsided tree, I’d been giving the whole “Christmas decorating” matter some serious thought.  Two years previously I’d simplified much of my Christmas décor.  Now I realized that I wanted a completely different tree.  What, I pondered, what could I do differently? And why was this so important to me?

I love Christmas. I always have. I love the old, familiar carols just as much as the new songs that breathe life into the season. I love choosing presents, finding that just-right gift; I love wrapping them while sipping mulled cider. I love the scents of pine and the glimmer of candle flame. But in recent years, I’d found  that decorating my tree felt more like a chore than a pleasure. Why? I needed to know why.

After much thought, I realized that my annual tree theme of bright red or plaid ribbons and golden ornaments felt stale and weary.  I’d chosen that color scheme when trying something different just after my divorce. And beloved though some of my ornaments were, they’d watched over many a not-terribly-happy Christmas day.  (The year when, having eaten the lovely Christmas lunch I’d prepared, everyone bailed without so much as carrying a dirty plate to the kitchen, leaving me all alone to a tearful afternoon of  clearing up the mess; the year when a beloved relative had fallen into a coma on Christmas day, and I, having gone to keep the family company, had gotten lost in the dark on the way home, terrified but unable to summon assistance because I’d forgotten my cell phone; the Christmas when another relative, while enjoying the special dinner I’d worked so hard to cook, had mocked my aging nativity figurines…) There was, I concluded, a lot of accumulated negative energy infiltrating my Christmas décor.

So I began sorting through the boxes of decorations, keeping only a few of those most deeply precious. I’d already refurbished my disparaged nativity figurines (see Repainting the Nativity, 01/16/19).img_20190115_110047196 (2) I bundled up ornaments and garland and donated them to a charity thrift shop.

Now, with my new, non-lopsided tree in the cart, I searched for equally new decorations, fresh and free of negative associations. SnowQueenTree (2)Brilliant new colors: turquoise and silver and opalescent white. A Christmas tree unlike anything I’d done previously.

As I am Vintage, I may find myself, sooner than I like, downsizing to a “Not Quite Giving Up on Christmas” tabletop tree. And I will always recall with pleasure the many Christmas trees I have decorated with a fair degree of artistry and enjoyment.

But despite having moved on, I will always remember that quirky Lopsided Tree.

The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.