O (Fake) Christmas Tree
I could begin by lamenting the events of 2020, but I don’t believe I need to. We all know it’s been a strange and trying year. I could say, “we’re all in this together”, but that feels disingenuous. The holiday season can be a difficult time for some…some more than others, but I’d wager you knew that already, too.
So, dear reader, instead of dragging out all the old tired Christmas clichés and 2020 jokes, I’ll just share a little story about a lesson learned and the spirit of Christmas. (Forgive me. I just had to get one cliché in here).
I love holidays. All of them. Give me a reason to dress up, decorate, and host a party, then stand back! I turn into a dervish of glitter and magic! I’m what you would describe as “extra” every day of the week, so when I have an extra reason to be extra, I get EXTRA extra! Christmas is one of those holidays when going over the top is not only appreciated, it’s encouraged, so obviously, I’m all in. But this has been a family tradition for as long as I can remember.
My grandfather loved Christmas. He loved the way Christmas lights reflected and danced on the snow outside. He loved giant Christmas trees stuffed with sparkling ornaments, roaring fires in the fireplace, freshly baked cookies, and every other Currier and Ives moment you could dream up. Christmas was his time of year! He turned into a little kid every year as he spent weeks planning and decorating, transforming his and my gran’s mountain home into a Christmas wonderland. He even went so far as to fly to New York to watch how the Rockefeller Christmas Tree was lit and decorated!
One year, I must have been around five or six years old, my parents and I arrived early for our Christmas visit. Grandfather hadn’t decorated the tree yet. That evening, after we had settled in and stuffed ourselves on my gran’s delicious cooking, my grandfather invited me to help decorate the tree. I don’t remember much, just mostly what my mother and Gran told year after year as a fond Christmas memory, but what I do remember was how enormous that tree felt. Like the tree in the Nutcracker ballet, it seemed to grow larger as the evening went on. The lights seemed to shine from a depth that went on forever, and if I followed them, I’d be transported to another world full of magic and miracles.
My grandfather would hand me a glass ornament, like he was handing me a rare artifact, each one with a special story or meaning. I held my breath a little each time, fearful that I might drop and break one. But my grandfather never flinched.
Maybe he was confident I wouldn’t. Maybe he didn’t care if I did. He saw many precious things shattered in his lifetime. He survived The Great Depression, an auto rollover in his Model A truck, and The Bataan Death March. A little broken glass was nothing to this man. But, maybe he was also just having too much fun to entertain the possibility that my clumsy little hands may not have been up to the task.
He let me select a spot for each ornament, never once correcting me or suggesting a “better” spot. Once we had finished placing what seemed like a thousand ornaments, we stood back and admired our work. Naturally, being a darling cherub standing maybe knee-high to a grasshopper, all of the ornaments were placed at my limited arm span. He never said a word.
That’s not entirely true.
He said “beautiful”.
Then he kissed me and sent me off to bed. As I slept, my mother and gran cleaned the kitchen, and my dad watched football, my grandfather rearranged the tree, carefully placing each ornament in the perfect spot. After spending the whole evening with me, he spent the rest of it decorating the tree… again.
The next morning, when we all came down stairs for breakfast, he brought us in to admire the tree, giving me all of the credit. “Look at how beautifully Dolly decorated the tree! Didn’t she do a wonderful job?” Everyone applauded my expert decorating skills.
And I believed them.
As the extended family came trickling in, he made a point to tell everyone about how well I decorated the tree. No one believed him, but they all complimented me just the same. My little heart was so full it could burst! I’m still a sucker for applause.
Fast forward thirty-some years.
My grandfather is gone now. My gran has moved back to California to be near family. In her move, she had to make painful decisions. Downsizing a home didn’t just mean getting rid of extra sofas and chairs. It meant getting rid of my grandfather’s chair. It meant saying goodbye to the life they built together. It meant letting go.
As I was preparing to move houses with my own family, I got a call from my mother. “Hey, Sis. I know you like fresh Christmas trees, but Gran has her tree from the house in Sedona, and it’s too much for her to manage. Do you want it?”
I didn’t. Artificial trees shed too much. They don’t smell like real trees. I’d have to store it somewhere, and after downsizing my own home, I didn’t think I’d have room.
“She doesn’t want to get rid of it. I offered to donate it to the church, but she didn’t seem interested.” My mother explained.
Ugh. I got it. I understood why she didn’t want to just get rid of the tree. In fact, I was one of the few family members not pushing her to get rid of stuff. Not because my mother, aunts, and uncles are callous and unfeeling people, but because I lost my dad around the time we lost my grandfather. I wasn’t ready to move on either. I’m still not.
But I didn’t have the responsibility of making sure all her things fit in the new house. I didn’t have to move her. I wasn’t the one who had to force her to make those hard decisions. Understanding was a luxury I had that they didn’t.
I reluctantly agreed to take the tree. It arrived in three boxes.
I shoved them in a corner of our already full garage telling my husband, “If it’s old and ratty, we’ll just donate it.”
The months passed. I had all sorts of COVID time to unpack and arrange my new home. The tree sat in the corner. Between the repeated lockdowns, my industry all but disappearing, and the general poor morale everywhere, I decided, like so many other holiday lovers, to decorate early.
I dragged those dusty boxes of tree parts into the house expecting to find a mangled mess of wire and plastic needles. What I found instead was a note written in my grandfather’s hand detailing how the tree should be assembled for maximum effect, ignoring the manufacturers instructions. I was suddenly transported to those Christmases of my childhood. I remember the care he took decorating their home, how he let me decorate the tree, this tree. And just like that, a real tree didn’t matter anymore. Color schemes and a stylish holiday aesthetic didn’t matter. The memory of my grandfather’s joy at Christmas was the only thing I cared about.
I followed his directions, carefully placing each branch in its color-coded slot. I had extra pieces. I started over. It took me hours to put together this giant tree that belonged in a stately home with cathedral ceilings into my modest California suburban home. Once I finally got it right, I measured it for giggles. I remember it being huge, but I was small then. The world is huge when you’re in kindergarten. My grandfather was over six feet tall, and even he needed a ladder, as I remember.
This tree, that was meticulously stored (I should have known), was towering over me once again. Just like Marie (or Clara, if you prefer) in The Nutcracker, I looked on in awe as it seemed to grow right before my eyes, my heart full to bursting again as I remembered all those Christmases past. I strung the lights as he instructed, and placed each ornament in the perfect spot, then stood back and admired the tree he and I decorated together.
These days, my gran usually spends Christmas surrounded by her children, grand children, and great-grandchildren. But this year people in our family are sick. I suspect, even though she’d never say, that she probably misses my grandfather more than ever. We’ve taken steps to make sure she’ll be safe spending Christmas in our home with us. My mother and step-father will be spending Christmas with us as well. She’ll be surrounded by family, even though she’ll be missing those she can’t be with this year.
I can’t wait for her to see her tree, which is now my tree, but will always be my grandfather’s tree.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. May the memory of loved ones lost shine on in your traditions this season, and may you always be a little kid at Christmas.