There’s a tree in my living room. A real tree, recently deceased, but apparently still sucking enough water up to the branches to create a semblance of aliveness. It is startling to see an evergreen standing in a living room — really a non-living room, a place very unconducive to trees.
The incongruity of an inside tree creates a subtle magic, which is, it seems, conducive to Christmas spirit — to my spirit anyway.
The past two years, I didn’t have a tree at all because my grandsons didn’t visit the last two Decembers, and the idea of getting a tree, putting it up and decorating it all by myself just didn’t motivate me. I could blame it on the pandemic. I was just taking a break — from so many of the routines and rituals that seemed sacred in and of themselves, which they aren’t. The rituals themselves merely bring us, when the magic is working, to the brink of the sacred.
I enjoyed the break. Cleansed the palate.
This year, therefore, felt different. I arranged for the boys to come and help me pick out a tree, put it up, and best of all, decorate it. After a fortifying breakfast of pancakes/French toast sticks and bacon, we drove to the YMCA, our traditional venue, and discovered they weren’t selling trees this year. So we headed down to Rehm Park where the Dombrowskis of Michigan had set up their evergreen emporium (They wrapped up and headed back home on Sunday).
I told the boys to pick out the perfect tree, and they nailed it on the first try. Sure, we agreed in previous years that there’s no such thing as an imperfect Christmas tree. But this balsam was particularly perfect, from a shapely point of view. It also had a name, Hector, though how they divined that is anyone’s guess. One of the tree attendants tied it on top of my car and in no time at all we joined my favorite parade of the holiday season: motoring along village streets with evergreen carcasses on the roof. We carried Hector upstairs — the boys handling the trunk because 8-year-olds are notoriously averse to the prickliness of fir needles.
For those with reasonably cultivated taste, the only sappy thing you would ever bring into your home is a Christmas tree — the sappier the better because that’s where the glorious smell comes from, and soon my apartment was filled with it. We liberated the tree stand from the recesses of my closet, along with the ornament boxes. I gave them free rein in decorating the tree, as well as, it turned out, my entire living/dining room.
Considering that they’re only 8 years old, they have a highly developed sense of design. It’s amazing what Tyler did with the long lengths of colorful ribbon I couldn’t bear to throw away from past years. My pole lamp, for instance, is now a striped candy cane, thanks to Bryce, who also turned the nativity scene into a Happy Birthday shrine. Later I noticed one of them had placed my Gaelic cross ornament next to the stable, so they’ve made the connection between Jesus and the symbol. We talked about the wise men bringing gifts. Like every other child who has aged into the Christmas origin story, they couldn’t fathom the point of frankincense and myrrh, though they approved of the gold.
Normally, these are the droppingest boys you ever saw, but they brought great concentration to bear on their task and did not suffer a single ornament casualty. They hung the stockings by the casement window knobs with care and when I turned around at one point, Bryce was standing on a dining room chair leaning precariously over the tree to place the star on top.
No one was harmed in the decorating of this tree.
They left the last one for me to hang — their favorite, and mine — the German-glass typewriter ornament they gave me a couple of Christmases ago because I’m a writer and because my living-room design scheme includes an old Remington Rand manual, which they love to fiddle with.
We didn’t have enough time for the lights, so I added those a few nights later. Then I darkened the room and plugged it in. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a Christmas tree in the dark. Time itself is fundamentally altered. People have been doing this for generations, and some of the ornaments echo those earlier eras. The ghosts of Christmas Past are much present when you decorate a tree.
Baubles, dangling from boughs,
Testify to family history,
Imbued with the Carbon-14 of memory,
Secured with long, crooked hooks
That look impossibly old,
Legacies flash before our eyes, ghosts pressing close,
Trinkets, sprinkled with stories, some bitter, some sweet,
Marking the passage of lives, extant or extinct,
Lost connections returning to life each December,
My favorite ritual, my Tannen-balm,
Alpha and omega,
Where the season begins and ends.
Un-decorating in early January is nearly as poignant.
Childhood memories come alive and ornaments have stories to tell — about those who gave or made or sold them. The past is never more alive than when I’m hanging heirlooms on a tree — or watching my Christmas-Yet-To-Come grandboys hang them.
It’s a ritual that once induced melancholy, but not this year. This Christmas tree is indeed my Tannen-balm, the calming intersection of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.
Which may be what Dickens was aiming at when he put old Ebenezer through his famous reckoning.
Can’t wait for the boys to see these lights.