For some folks, it’s a hike into the woods, for others, a stop by the local lot. For some families it’s a main event, the kickoff to the season; for others, just a sideshow in the holiday circus. For me, it’s a three-day process and it is done A Very Particular Way.
DAY 1: The tree
We get a fresh tree. In this way at least, I’m a traditionalist. And while at one time it may have seemed more eco-friendly and economical to invest in an artificial tree, now I feel pretty good about opting for a fresh, locally grown tree, rather than one made from potentially hazardous plastics and chemicals. Much like buying local food, purchasing a tree from a local farmer gives you the opportunity to hear directly from the producer about how it was grown, if you wish.
There are requirements.
1. The tree is procured first thing in the morning on the Friday after Thanksgiving: Black Friday for some, (Ever)Green Friday for me.
2. It must be a Fraser fir. They have short needles and sturdy branches angled slightly upward, ideal for ornaments.
3. I take the first passable tree. A little thick? Easily shaped with a pair of pruning shears. A little sparse? More room for ornaments. I’m a firm believer that every tree – even and especially the ones with character – needs a home. I wish I could be so decisive about other kinds of shopping.
4. Breakfast, preferably French toast. This has nothing to do with the tree; I just like for traditions to involve a meal.
In our area, we have options that include horse drawn wagon rides, hot chocolate and visits with Santa, and a rather steep price tag for the experience. For years, my in-laws went with their neighbors to cut their own, fortified with a nip (or two) of peach schnapps for warmth. While I like the spirit of that approach, I (really) don’t like to be cold. At all. I recognize that my version of Tree Picking is not an idyllic one, but as far as I’m concerned, choosing the tree is merely selecting the canvas.
Once we arrive home, the tree goes into its stand. (We have a nifty little number with a removable reservoir; it also swivels into place for leveling and doesn’t require drilling into the tree trunk.) And then the tree must breeeaaathe. A day at room temperature allows limbs to adjust to the warmth and settle in to place.
DAY 2: The Lights
Folks can be finicky about their Christmas tree lights, and I’m no exception. I am adamantly in the “clear lights, no twinkling” camp. But I won’t judge you for your choice.
Almost every year, I fail to dig out the box of lights and test them before the Christmas tree comes home. So, almost every year, lighting the tree takes two hours longer than I’ve estimated, accounting for the time it takes to run to the nearest store, and then the next nearest store, because inevitably the first store will be one box short. This frustrating scenario is a strong argument for an investment in LED lights, which, in addition to lasting much longer than traditional lights, are also more energy efficient and much safer, as they burn cooler.
Once I have acquired several strands of working lights, my technique for lighting the tree is pretty straightforward: weaving strands over and under (and sometimes even around) branches. Even without the further adornment, a lit Christmas tree in a dimmed room is simply one of my favorite things. I find it inviting and enchanting; even my husband, not one for fuss or clutter, gets caught up in the glow and asks to keep the tree up all year.
DAY 3: The Ornaments
I suppose it could be done the same day as the lights, but it’s such an undertaking it gets its own day. The year before, the ornaments were sorted as they were packed up, like materials together and protected accordingly – stuffed and soft ones together, fragile glass balls in boxes, others wrapped in newspaper and tissue paper, keepsake silver ornaments in velvet pouches. So, as they are unpacked and spread over every available surface in the living room, they are already grouped and organized. Now the magic happens. (And now is when I get picky.)
It’s a childhood memory I cherish and one I relive each year as I hang many of the same ornaments on my own tree, in my own house; my mother passed them on and have continued to build the collection…
1. Distribute like-themed ornaments equally throughout the tree. The tree is divided into thirds horizontally and the three identical bicyclist ornaments, given to us by three different people, are assigned to a section, and so forth. (If this leads you to surmise that cycling is a big thing in our house, you wouldn’t be wrong.)
2. Choose the right ornament for the space. This is where the “imperfections” in a tree come in handy. Gaping hole? Classic ball shapes fit well there (a red glass ball with my name written in silver glitter, which once hung on my grandmother’s tree). Protruding branches? These are often the best spots for longer, thinner ornaments (a metallic chili pepper from a Tex-Mex themed Christmas party hosted by dear friends who now live far away).
3. THE ORNAMENTS MUST HANG. They may not rest on a branch below. They must be suspended, and when nudged by a finger, their gentle sway must not be impeded by branches on either side. I will make other concessions regarding Tree Decorating: I will wait until Saturday, I will settle for a pastry instead of a sit-down breakfast. But on this point I will not yield. This is my cardinal rule of tree decorating.
And it was on these grounds that my husband ceded sole responsibility for tree decorating to me very early in our marriage. And The Ultimate Christmas Tree, with its perfectly placed ornaments, became an annual triumph. I don’t have a lot of talents, but I can trim a tree with the best of them. It is a patient and painstaking (though probably not a high) art: taking the time to find, or create (I mentioned pruning shears) the right home for each ornament; meticulously adjusting the hooks and hangers so ornaments rotate to face outward (after all, they are hanging); arranging the sterling silver ornaments so light catches them just right and their red ribbons are scattered evenly across the tree.
For the first decade of my grown-up, own-house life, this Christmas tree was the extent of my seasonal holiday decorating. A wreath for the door. A pumpkin and a mum in fall. And one impeccably decorated tree.
But in recent years, there’s been a development.
Actually, two. Their names are Thomas and Henry.
Our older son is six and he loves holidays. He loves calendars and themes and celebrations and seasonal decorations, like a plastic-pumpkin-headed built-from-scratch scarecrow named Fred. I’ve been petitioned for ghosts and spider webs and faux tombstones, for all manner of signs and banners, for giant inflatables – turkeys at Thanksgiving, Santas at Christmas and penguins for Winter. Though colored Christmas tree lights are still a deal-breaker, I’ve considered requests far beyond my aesthetic, my sensibilities, and my wildest dreams, because, it turns out (as these things often do), the decorating isn’t really about me or my Perfect Tree.
It is, however, about allowing my son to pick out a tinsel jack-o-lantern decoration for the door to his room, so he feels like he is a participant in the household. It’s about saying “yes” to the DIY cornucopia decoration (with glitter!), so he feels like he is making a contribution. He can take ownership of and feel pride in helping to ready the house for the holidays. And isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that what the decorating really is about?
I suspect it’s also about learning to let an ornament lean against a branch if that’s where he thinks it looks best.
I suspect it’s also about learning to let an ornament lean against a branch if that’s where he thinks it looks best. Because decorating that tree together is important. It’s a childhood memory I cherish and one I relive each year as I hang many of the same ornaments on my own tree, in my own house; my mother passed them on and has continued to build the collection, which includes:
• a ceramic ballet slipper, because I wanted to be a dancer when I grew up
• a notebook, because I wanted to be a writer if the dancing thing didn’t work out (spoiler: it didn’t)
• a runner, the year I completed my first marathon
• the seal of my alma mater
• a cardinal, the state bird of North Carolina, where my husband and I lived for many years
• a bride, a baby carriage, and a wine glass; which are (ahem) perhaps not entirely a coincidental combination
Alongside those go dozens more, including the aforementioned glass ball, chili pepper, and cyclists, plus an additional handful of bicycles. (Seriously, biking is A Thing.) We add ornaments like
• “#1 Teacher” from my husband’s kindergarten students, and my son talks about wanting to grow up to be a teacher and go to work with his dad
• the seahorse commemorating our summer beach vacation
• the dog bone, in honor of Grady, our German Short-haired Pointer, who died last year
• this, from the year he was fascinated, if not a little frightened, by Bumble in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
• this, from the year he watched Frosty the Snowman at every possible opportunity
• this, because if animal noises count as words (they do, right?), “baa” was one of his brother’s first
• This year, Little Brother is getting this, because he consumes a lot of milk. A lot. And not much else.
The more whimsical, the more eclectic, the better and the more meaningful. There is not a cohesive theme for the tree – in color, material or subject. The only theme is us. And we are the story that my son belongs to, that he learns, that he helps to create as he helps to decorate the tree.
My kids don’t have baby books. Sure, I kept locks of hair and hospital bracelets and I know when they cut their first teeth and when they started to walk. But those stories are not recorded or illustrated, just precariously stashed in my brain. I am haunted with guilt and the beautiful scrapbook pages my friends have compiled for their children. In the digital age, we snap photos with our phones, and we store them organized by month and year, but we seldom print them.
But that tree, that’s where I keep my stories. That tree is where we’ve been. What we’ve done. What we do. Who we are.
Maybe my husband is on to something after all. Maybe we should leave it up all year.