Friday, December 18, 2009

The Fun's Not Fake

When I was a kid, having a Christmas tree felt a lot like work. We didn’t pull one out of a box from the basement. My siblings and I piled into our bright yellow maxi van, along with whatever foster siblings we had at the time, and headed down the road to the local tree farm. We tromped through row after row of perfectly planted specimens and with much fuss and fanfare we all eventually decided on a winner.

Taking turns with the hand saw, slowly, oh so slowly, the chosen treasure was detached from its perch. Then came more work, as we took turns dragging it to the car. I don’t remember the logistics at that point. Looking back with a parent’s eyes now, I can’t imagine how we got that tree home. Surely there was no room left inside the overflowing maxi van and I know we didn’t have a luggage rack to tie it to the roof.

If it felt like that much work to me as a kid, I can’t imagine what an ordeal it was for my parents. Just finding hats and mittens for our oversized family must have been a challenge, not to mention corralling the group as we hiked across acres of land to find the perfect tree. But for all the work it was, the end result was always worth it.

Later that night, after lights had been strung and years worth of handmade ornaments had been draped over each and every branch, we turned out the living room lights and admired our work. There is something truly magical about a dark living room on a cold winter night, lit only by the warm twinkling of a million little white lights. It was enough to make you forget about the sap on your fingers and the arguments about who had to carry the saw.

It wasn’t long before it was my turn to decide how the Christmas tree ritual should be carried out. Jeff came from traditions much like my own so it was inevitable that a real tree would be part of our future. In the early days of parenthood we lived in tiny houses and didn’t have room to do anything elaborate. As the kids got bigger so did our living quarters and we began the tromp through the woods to cut down our own tree. For several years we lived in a house shaped like a barn, and a fresh tree seemed to be a requirement. It just fit the environment so well we couldn’t imagine having anything else.

The month before we moved to Washington D.C. we accidentally acquired a beautiful artificial tree. It joined our other household possessions in the large moving truck and because we lived in a rental in D.C., we pulled it out and used it our first year there. The results surprised us.

As loyal as we were to ‘the real thing’ we suddenly understood the draw of a not so natural tree. It was automatically the right size. There was no sap on our fingers or our carpet. The branches were bendy (who knew?) and could be modified to hold even the heaviest ornament. After the holidays were over, there were no pine needles lingering in my carpet, poking barefoot children as they wrestled with daddy on the living room floor. My vacuum survived unscathed. And the best part, the part I had never taken into account, we never - not once - worried about the thing catching fire.

I had severely underestimated how much we worried about holiday fires each year. No matter how hard I tried I could never keep that little dish under our real tree full of water. Day after day I kneeled on the floor and endured scratches to the face and arms as I tried to pour liquid into that tiny receptacle, only to discover by the next day it was dry again. So of course the tree dried out. It got brittle. It dropped needles. And it kept us awake at night, worrying that we had forgotten to turn off the lights and surely this would be the night it all went up in flames.

With our new fabulous fake tree we no longer worried about fires. We traded the romance and aroma of a magical real tree for a few weeks of uninterrupted sleep. It was hard to admit, but we were suddenly sold on the whole idea of artificial trees.

In the next few years we moved several times and our plastic tree held up nicely. It fit in every living room we had and its consistency and familiarity was comforting as we struggled to find where the decorations looked best in each new environment. We started new traditions that centered around not having a real tree. While we lived in Utah, Michael and Isaac became a team and figured out their own way of stringing up lights. Isaac laid under the tree, spinning it slowly in its stand, while Michael slowly wove the cords through the branches. Even Sam had a part, making sure the strands were unraveled as they came off the cardboard. I laughed at them the first year they did it, but it is such an efficient system, we do it every year now.

I do miss the real tree some years. A few days ago Sam asked me if we’d ever had a real one. It made me sad that he has no memory of those days. Maybe some year, maybe even next year, we will do a real tree, just for the fun of it. But for now, while we have our traditions that work, we will sit back and enjoy the one we have decorated in the corner of our living room. It might not smell real or feel real, and it sure as heck doesn’t look that real. But the fun we had decorating it was real.

And that’s enough for me.

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