My friend Elizabeth wrote three short essays about Christmas trees, and I really enjoyed reading them. I asked her if I might post them on my blog and she consented. That being said, enjoy today’s guest contribution from fellow Kansan Elizabeth Kanost. Heartfelt, homespun stuff for the holidays. Sit down with a tall glass of eggnog, and pour Elizabeth’s essays into your noggin’…
Three Christmas Trees: A Trio of Tales About How This Holiday Decoration Has Touched My Heart
By Elizabeth Kanost
With all the advertisements, last-minute shopping trips, and cheesy TV specials, Christmastime can often become impersonal and overwhelming. In reflecting on Christmases past, I found it refreshing to recall how Christmas trees, decorations so common we often overlook their significance, have continued to remind me what the holiday season should really be about.
During the first Christmas season that my husband and I were dating, he invited me to help decorate his family’s Christmas tree. In my home, decorating the Christmas tree was a very personal event, full of reminiscing about the origins of ornaments and lots of jocularity, often involving maracas and a rendition of “Felíz Navidad.” Therefore, I viewed this invitation as a gesture of acceptance into his family.
My expectations of tree-decorating stem from the meticulous process my family acts out every year. First, my Dad balances on a ladder and carefully winds the lights around the tree, making sure all branches are evenly lit. Then we gently add strings of red glass beads, which belonged to my great-grandmother. Each family member has a box of their own ornaments they have inherited or received as gifts, and we all hang them simultaneously, making sure no area of the tree is overpowered. Everything is evenly balanced, and as symmetrical as possible. As a finishing touch, my Dad meticulously ties glass icicles to the tips of various branches with string while we all watch in awe as if he’s performing brain surgery. Once it’s finished, we step back and take in our masterpiece.
Upon arriving at Nathan’s home, I expected his family’s tree-decorating rituals to match my family’s meticulous holiday habits. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nathan’s dad uncoiled a string of colored Christmas lights and began hanging them on the tree. But he wasn’t hanging them; he was strangling them. He violently pushed the lights into the tree so that they would stick between the slender, upturned needles, and rather than winding the lights around the tree horizontally, he zigzagged them up and down. To someone who was observing his shadow through the living room curtains, it would have looked as though he were in a fistfight, and the tree, unfortunately, was winning.
After the massacre ended, I thought things might proceed normally. We opened a plastic storage box full of ornaments, which I might add, were not separated by family member, or in their original boxes, or wrapped in protective tissue paper. To my chagrin, members of Nathan’s family began to hang these ornaments in whatever way seemed to suit them, resulting in clumps of overlapping decorations and sections of bare branches. I ran around the tree, frantically rearranging things, until I realized Nathan was laughing at me. Embarrassed, I sat on the couch and used every ounce of restraint I had to keep from screaming at them: “What is wrong with you people? Can’t you see you’re ruining everything?!”
That night I lay awake in bed fretting that I might marry into a family of unorganized, ornament-clumping, tree-punchers. But the more I thought, the more I began to realize that our families’ differences in decorating seemed to symbolize their different dynamics.
I come from a family of high-strung perfectionists. When we throw a party, utensils and napkins will match, decorations are themed, and we run around like crazy people making sure everyone is having a good time, often forgetting to relax and enjoy the atmosphere ourselves. For us, our Christmas tree is a prideful symbol of perfectly placed memories to display for holidays guests.
In contrast, Nathan’s family is laid-back and spontaneous. They might run a few minutes late to the party or use mismatched plates, but their love and camaraderie make any gathering seem like a family picnic, and no one is stressed out. Their Christmas tree symbolizes the ease with which they go about their daily lives, and the seemingly thoughtless ornament placement reflects their focus on the big picture, rather than the details. Regardless of the appearance, both trees provide each family with joy and holiday spirit.
When I reflect on all of this, I realized how lucky I was to be able to experience two wonderfully different families and appreciate and embrace their holiday traditions. Each Christmas season I cherish decorating trees with both families, although I still have to sit on my hands when watching my in-laws in action.
My Aunt Debbie had been battling brain cancer for 18 months, and in the winter of 2007 she went into 24-hour care in a nursing home. Preparing for a Christmas overshadowed by her illness, my family began to pack for the trip down to Oklahoma. We would be staying with my mom’s parents, who were both in their 80s. My grandma had long forgone putting up her fake Christmas tree when we weren’t visiting, and this year she had purchased a conveniently-sized plywood “tree” that had various shiny bobbles attached to it. My mom informed me before we left Kansas that I shouldn’t bother my grandma about decorating the fake tree, but just appreciate her new wooden “decoration.” For some reason, this infuriated me. Mom and I went back and forth, arguing about my desire for a genuine Christmas tree and her wish to keep her mother as calm as possible during our visit.
Selfishly I stormed off to my room, where I sat and contemplated why I had become so enraged. It was just a Christmas tree, and a fake one at that. I thought back to all the childhood Christmases at my grandparents’ home; my grandma getting out the boxes of ornaments that dated back to the 1920s from her hall closet, and me and my brother spending hours placing them each in exactly the right spot. This was something special, different from our tree at home. In my mind, I connected that tree with all my gleeful, holiday memories of Christmases in Oklahoma. Somehow, I felt that without the tree, and given my aunt’s condition, we wouldn’t stand a chance of being happy this Christmas.
After an apology, I told my mother about my sentimental attachment to the tree, and how I thought it could be a source of cheer for us all. Of course she understood, so we created a plan that would make everyone happy.
My brother and I waited until my mom had taken my grandma grocery shopping, and then we went to the attic to retrieve the fake tree and the ornaments. We decorated it like always, hanging each frost-covered songbird, glittery fairy, and shiny glass ball with painstaking care. When they returned from their trip, my grandma gasped in surprise and smiled, her eyes bright.
“It’s a beautiful tree,” she said.
We visited my aunt several times during that trip, and it was almost impossible to remain composed, seeing her lay there, so frail and disoriented. Every time we returned to my grandparents’ house the tree was there to greet us. It twinkled with outstretched branches as if to say “It’s OK. I know you don’t have a lot of holiday spirit right now, so I’ll create it for you.”
My aunt passed away five days after Christmas that year. I miss her every holiday season, but now I smile whenever I see a Christmas tree, remembering the comfort my grandma’s tree brought us.
December 2009 marked the first Christmas Nathan and I celebrated as a married couple. Generally, people perceive winter as a romantic time of year that involves snuggling with hot cocoa by the fire, exchanging gifts with your special someone, and locking lips beneath the mistletoe. This idea leaves out the fact that many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, not to mention the financial strain the holiday season tends to cause.
So there we were, living paycheck to paycheck and spending most of our money on the heating bill and comfort food. They say money can’t buy happiness, but it can, in fact, buy a Christmas tree, which we both knew would cheer up our home. So we set out on a mission: to find the best tree we could for the lowest price. Turns out, this was mission impossible. After visiting three tree lots and picking through overpriced and sickly looking pines, the sun had gone down, our hands were numb with cold, and our stomachs were growling. We decided to try again the next day, but on the way home we happened to drive by the Optimist tree lot. Maybe it was the organization’s name that gave us hope, but we felt renewed enthusiasm. Perhaps, we thought, we could make one last stop.
We walked through the rows of trees that were sprinkled with lights, rubbing our hands together. There were many exceptional specimens, but we still weren’t sure we could afford any of them. Finally, a salesman approached and gave us the pricing spiel.
“This here is your Douglas Fir. It’s the Cadillac of Christmas trees.” Nathan and I looked at the tree longingly; this was definitely not in our price range.
“We’re more in the market for the Dodge Neon of trees,” I explained. He laughed and took us down to the opposite end of the lot, where I expected to find a pile of pathetic Charlie Brown trees.
But there it was: the Scotch Pine. For only $35, plus $2 for tree food and a disposal bag, we could have the perfect Christmas tree. One problem: We were both pretty sure we only had about $30 in our checking account. But we hadn’t come this far to go home treeless.
We took our Scotch Pine home, where we battled with the tree-stand for a good 20 minutes before realizing the tree itself was actually crooked, and would therefore stand at about 86° instead of 90°. But, to us, it was the most perfect Christmas tree we had ever seen. We sat on the couch and snuggled, staring at our crooked, undecorated, wonderful tree. We were happy.
Looking back, this was easily one of the happiest moments of our first year of marriage. We didn’t have enough money, we were still figuring out how to split up housework without arguing constantly, and we weren’t entirely sure where the next year would lead us. But we had our first Christmas tree, and for a moment, nothing else seemed to matter.