Friday, February 15, 2008

The Day of the Tree

Today was the day of the Christmas Tree. I LOVE Christmas. It is my absolute favorite time of year. Some of the best memories from my childhood are of Christmases spent with my huge extended family. I loved traveling up north or west to Iowa to my relatives' homes where it was sure to be cold and likely to have snow on the ground. I loved getting to see all my cousins, piling up together and watching The Year Without a Santa Claus, singing along with the Snowmeiser and Heatmeiser. I loved the way my grandfather would bang out hymns on the piano, bellowing at the top of his lungs, and insist we all join in. I loved the wide-ranging, often impassioned adult debates over dinner, the ones that we children watched and learned from. My all-time favorite year was the year of the Evil Bunny of Death, the persona a dramatic elder cousin attached to a purple bunny balloon my grandparents had bought little Nell, the youngest cousin. That whole Christmas, the specter of the Evil Bunny hung over every event. You never knew where he might turn up, causing all of us to roar with laughter at the antics and cleverness of our showman cousin. Those years were magic. Now having young children of my own, my happiness comes from watching their emerging understand of Christmas and seeing their wonder and joy at the marvel of Santa Claus and the birth of a babe in a manager. I want for them everything that I had those Christmases ago.One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season is decorating the tree. I have a vision in my head of what my Christmas tree should look like. It should be of ceiling-grazing height, lush and full with no holes, fragrant, triangular in shape and preferably pine. We always get a real tree for Christmas, no artificial stuff for us. Oh, I understand the appeal of a fake tree; they are easy, don't dry out, and after an initial hefty investment, free. But they don't offer an opportunity for the whole family to bundle up every year and go on a search for that picture perfect, living symbol of Christmas. They don't bring the feel of a real tree, that sense of something earthy and organic that warms our winter-chilled souls and speaks of rebirth and spring to come. They don't remind me that this is the season to remember our mutual creator and celebrate the gift of life. They are cold and too, well, artificial.My husband's grandmother lives on a large rural plot of land populated by white pines and cedar trees. Being a child of the depression, she can't fathom why we would spend our hard-earned money buying a tree when there are perfectly serviceable ones on her land for the taking . She made it clear over Thanksgiving that she expected us to come over and cut down one of her trees. She even walked her land and earmarked her favorites for us to select among. How could we refuse?Trying to be a good sport and not wanted to offend anyone, I agreed that yes, we should go and cut down one of her trees. So we pack up the kids and travel the 30 miles or so out to her place to get our tree. After much deliberating, my husband selected a seemingly acceptable cedar, cut it down and we brought it home.I thought I would be OK with it. After all, I don't insist on the absolutely perfect, designer-decorated, color coordinated, be-ribboned and be-bowed, opulent but generic tree that is so popular these days. Who ever thought to put a giant bow on top of a Christmas tree? I don't pretend to understand that and it's not my style. I like homey trees decked out in a hodgepodge of ornaments ranging from heirloom glass beauties to the glittery, macaroni encrusted monstrosities made in my son's preschool class. I like to take out my ornaments each year and be reminded of that Christmas in San Fransisco when my sisters and I all received Chinese lantern ornaments, or the year that my son was born and we received a bevy of baby's first Christmas ornaments. I like ornaments that mean something and tie the family together. That's the whole point of Christmas, isn't it? For us all to remember our love for one another and reaffirm our connections to our faith, families, and all mankind?Given all this, I thought I would be OK with the skinny little balding tree we brought home. Unfortunately and to my shame, I was not. I tried to be, oh I tried. I didn't want to offend anyone and I didn't want us to have to spend any money on a tree this year since times are beyond tight. But I just couldn't stomach the thought of having this somewhat less than ideal object in my living room, the standing symbol of the season. It was too skinny, the bottom tier of branches was sparse, and its poor trunk was so small, it almost didn't fit in the stand. I want the full, majestic, perfectly triangular pine beauty of the forest ( albeit one that is helped along with constant trimming and tending). My heart sank each time I looked at this little cedar and deep down, I was disappointed and feared this might be an ominious portent of the season.Having lived with me for five years now, my husband read the look on my face. He was gracious about it and, rather wisely, said that although he didn't want to have to go get another tree, he would rather do it now than deal with an unhappy wife for the next three weeks. Smart man, he. So, after my children woke from their naps, we packed up again and headed to a local tree farm, spent an hour or so selecting that majestic pine, felled it, plunked down $35 and brought it home.I am happy now that we have the tree worthy of my high ideals. It will look beautiful in its spot in our living room and I will spend many an evening between now and Christmas curled up on the couch, gazing at it.I am, however, a little disappointed in myself, apparently a tree-snob. Why wasn't the truly natural cedar enough for me? After all, isn't this the time of year to remember the lowliest of us all? In rejecting this humble tree, have I shown myself to be frivolous, selfish, and ungrateful? Have I begun to buy into the commercial-driven image of what Christmas should be? Am I one step away from that color-coordinated, steel and plastic altar to a credit-card god tree from Wal-Mart, all tied up in a bow? Have I put too much stock in the appearance of Christmas and lost sight of its meaning? Or is it just that I want to make my Christmas all that I dream it could be? Something to ponder.

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