Any strip mall parking lot offers trees for sale now, but as a kid, Christmas tradition included packing the car with 4 kids and dog to build memories at the tree farm. Out in nature, family together, frosty air – a carol in the making except that through some sort of physics and perspective anomaly, a tree outdoors, no matter how tall, ALWAYS looks kind of puny. Small kids implored (tears were involved) “it’s too small, it’s too small”. Dad would give in and then could be heard muttering a bad word in the breezeway while hand sawing a yard or more off the over-sized tree destined for our modest-sized living room.
My sister and mother designated the tree’s best side sending the previously overlooked gap (it must have looked smaller outside, too) to face the wall, and then began the ordeal of teasing apart the labyrinth of lights. They had little metal clips on them in my youth that always clung to a sprig or two of the previous Christmas and tons of itself. Using every outlet in the room, we’d stretch the strings the full length of the living room for the test – round 1…Did they all light? If not, every single bulb was first tightened then replaced as necessary, one at a time because unlike apples, one bad light did ruin the whole bunch.
The prospect of making the tree stand upright in a little red well with green legs, and keeping it there, and passing the lights round and round the tree through the stabbing and sticky needles sent my mother to the kitchen to make cocoa with marshmallow fluff (to serve with boxed and besprinkled bell-shaped cookies). While the other kids made themselves scarce, I helped dad. Today ubiquitous tiny white lights have somehow claimed 92% of modern-day Christmas trees. And that’s a bit sad because they’re so ubiquitous that they could pass as the everyday décor for the average restaurant. We went hog-wild with light color and motion. We hung multi-speed action lights with 6 motions…chasing each other, random blinking, blinking as a full set, blinking in segments…and I can’t remember the other two awesomeness factors but we boasted of them back in the day. I felt strongly that multi colors were a louder shout out to Santa and/or God that “I am here, celebrating you” or “Get the best cookies and milk, right here, carrots for reindeer, too!” Wow, that’s the first time I realized this advertising thing has been percolating in my brain since toddler days. We did have standards and drew the line at musical lights. Now, they were tacky, and would interfere with my mother’s holiday records: Barbara Streisand’s “Ave Maria”, Johnny Mathis, Ray Coniff Singers, Andy Williams, Mitch Miller, and Henry Mancini’s “The Little Drummer Boy”.
In retrospect, I recognize our tree-style was “Mid Century Garish” with more “pops of color” than even David Bromstad on “Color Splash-Miami” would advise. We’d hang everything ever made by a kid, picked out by a kid, or purchased without kids in tow in the mistaken belief we could have a House Beautiful type of tree – all color coordinated and symmetrically decorated with graduating highly breakable orbs. Instead our tree held the increasingly decrepit felt snowman, hat and left twig arm missing, the inverted Styrofoam cup wrapped in aluminum foil and decorated with one Christmas sticker, both made by my brother. We had some antique beauties hinting at my mother’s tree before kids, but that quantity diminished each year as the cats climbed higher and the kids’ zeal overwhelmed the tree stability.
The only mandated tree precision – and this was my father’s rule – was with the
tinsel. House tinsel rules stipulated that exactly three strands would be hung on each branch only on the outer tips so they flowed freely. This is far too painstaking a process for 4 kids and the minute his back was turned – someone (yes I know who but will not divulge) chucked a matted clump of dozens of strands to land where it may to end the torture of the given box of the stuff. I found this image on etsy.com. Danger, Danger, these things were made of lead!! No wonder our cats and kids were nuts!
So why did I become a Christmas tree Scrooge after marrying a great dad? It wasn’t the design so much as the limited help, especially when it came to the watering and take down. I envisioned spontaneous fires fueled by the arid tree, especially when people forgot to turn the tree off when they left the house. And when water was applied (too late for our tree), it was sloshed equally liberally to the hard wood as the tree itself, and that didn’t really work for me. Trees mean danger to home and family. I expounded on that danger last year https://brain4rent.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/throwing-out-christmas/ .
And just as I’d come to terms with and categorized my Christmas tree fears, a
new menace was revealed. At my sister’s house, the tree is an abundant presence. Hand-cut, enormous, lush and full, painstakingly decorated with a personal flair that cannot be matched. Just gorgeous. This year, they displayed the “Toxic Tree”. Soon after perfectly draping the little white lights, my brother-in-law started getting itchy. Some people react to the pricking needles, but that was not the case. This year the tree had an interior garland hidden in its lushness – poison ivy. No ornaments could be hung, contact must be limited, and yet it, too, demonstrated inimitable flair through a design we all hope will never be repeated. But it will serve as a reminder to all that Christmas trees are not to be trusted.
©2012 by Alison Colby-Campbell