Decorating the Christmas tree marked the beginning of the holiday season when I was young. There are three children in my family: me, my younger brother and my younger sister. We lived in Baldwinsville at the time. Cutting down your own tree was the norm. My dad was a perfectionist when it came to the selection. (I am sure it had much to do with the modifications needed when a “Charlie Brown tree” was chosen.)
Once the tree was in the house and turned so the least offending side faced out, the decorating began. First, we hung the lights in a certain exact way: from the top down, making sure no cords showed. We placed the star. We then hung the ornaments, starting with the smallest on the top and moving down the tree with larger and larger bulbs. And finally, the piece de resistance: tinsel. My father would repeat over and over, “One strand at a time! One strand at a time!” We always started being patient and good but by the second box were apt to throw handfuls in the air, watching them cascade onto the tree and floor.
Once the tree was done, we would call my mother in for her inspection. We held our breath, awaiting our grade. Did we space the ornaments well? Did we unclump the tinsel? Were all the decorations facing so the pretty part was visible? My mother would always say it looked beautiful. Then we sang “O Christmas Tree,” making up words as needed. At least that is how I remember it.
My husband Brian and I were married five years before our first child, Amanda, was born. With no child participation, I could go over the top decorating our tree and home. I pored over Front Gate and Pottery Barn catalogs. I trawled Christmas Tree and Gift shops looking for ideas and ornaments. I incorporated ribbon, bows and bells, with varying degrees of success. I even considered a rotating tree stand but decided that would expose the back, where all the not-so-great ornaments were relegated.
Then Amanda came along. We spent her first two Christmases in the hospital. She had a big hole in her heart that needed repair, as well as an airway issue that took a while to figure out.
At the time, we lived in Southern California. You couldn’t go to a Christmas tree farm, take a tractor ride out to a field, and, armed with a hacksaw, choose and cut down the perfect tree. Instead, you drove to a previously vacant lot on a busy suburban street. You dug through stacks of sparsely needled trees, hoping for the elusive lush beauty, and then shelled out 80-plus dollars for your disappointing choice.
The other option was buying a “fake” tree. This suited my sensibilities, as I had begun to feel sad seeing the carcasses of once-adored trees discarded at the side of everyone’s driveways on New Year’s Day.
We purchased the biggest, most expensive imitation tree we could find. We had vaulted ceilings in our living room; our excuse. Really we were making up for the first two years of nonexistent holiday experiences.
A few years later we moved to Manlius. While tree farms are abundant, we still use our Southern California realistic replica in our family room. We have two children now: Amanda is 15 and Jason is 10. My love for decorating the tree has been passed down to them, and it has become the “Beginning of the Holiday Season” once more.
My husband is in charge of putting the tree together and festooning it with lights and an angel on top.
We dim the lights, put appropriate holiday music on the CD player, turn on the fireplace, and make eggnog with spiced rum and nutmeg for Brian and me.
We have learned from experience to put sleeping bags under the tree so no bulbs smash to smithereens on the hardwood floor.
We attempt the same ornament order I used as a child, with the additional requirement of breakable baubles being above kitty reach.
I have let go of my need for the perfect themed tree, with color coordination and multilayered effects. Now ornaments evoke memories: the Waterford crystal wedding gift; the imitation gold Corn Palace miniature from Mitchell, S.D., that was one stop on a cross-country trek; the various Disney Princess ornaments that still bring Amanda delight; Thomas the Train, a Jason obsession from the time he was 2 until age 5.
As the children have gotten older, they do more decorating while Brian and I keep the empty boxes rotating out and the ornaments armed with hooks. The last decorations placed are sparkly bells, which substitute for tinsel due to the aforementioned cats. No more “one strand at a time,” but festive nonetheless.
When all the boxes are empty we set the hand-painted, ceramic Nativity scene under the tree.
We then sit on the love seat and enjoy the beauty of our work. We listen to the music. We admire the twinkle of the lights on the tree. For the moment the craziness of cookie making, house decorating, present shopping and card writing seems far away. There is peace. There is family. We have made this tradition our own.
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.
Photo above: © Kaarsten | Dreamstime.com