November 29, 2006

My Christmas tree philosophy

I've always argued that a Christmas tree is supposed to look like a Christmas tree; that is, a tree decorated by all sorts of family members, including little kids who hang ornaments in the strangest places, and kittens who knock stuff off so that you have red balls rolling around in the manger scene. A Christmas tree is supposed to be lopsided because that's how you know it's a real tree. I mean, why would anyone want to buy a tree that looks artificial? And a Christmas tree is supposed to be covered with a strange assortment of decorations that don't match each other because they've been given to you by all different people, each ornament with a story and a history to go with it. The best parts of any tree is the homemade stuff: my parents' tree still holds tacky deocrations that I made in elementary school as well as ornaments made by their grandchildren. You can tell a lot about a family by looking closely at what hangs on the Christmas tree.

I have never understood friends who want try to coordinate the ornaments of their tree or who want their tree to look good. Oh, I still talk to these friends, and even go to holiday parties at their houses, but I don't understand them. At all. I mean, if what you want is an aesthetically pleasing tree, if beauty is what you are after, than I recommend that you leave that tree out in the farmer's field where you got it in the first place. No amount of tinsel or artificial lights can possible come close to the way a snow-covered tree looks on a sunny afternoon in December, with ice crystals shining from the green needles, with acres of trees and a whole golden-white pasture stretched out behind it.

To me, Christmas trees are like snow forts or sand castles or art projects: the fun part, the worthwhile part, the creative part, is the process of getting the tree and decorating it. The finished product is not what matters.

Some of my most treasured childhood holiday memories are from the exciting day in December when we would finally go get our Christmas tree. We'd get dressed in our winter clothes, with boots and hats and mittens, cram in to the station wagon, and drive out to an old farm, where we'd spend an hour or so tramping around in the fields, looking for just the right tree. We'd argue about which tree looked the best, and we'd knock the snow off the branches to see how thick the branches were, and my father would always stand next to the tree with his arm up, saying, "Look, gang, this is where the ceiling is."

My father would cut a tree down, and we'd have the excitement of carrying the tree, all of us helping, across the snowbanks. We'd stand in the barn, drinking hot chocolate and getting warm, before piling into the back of the station wagon, us kids clinging to the tree so that it wouldn't fall out. Seat belts hadn't been invented yet, and it was an exciting ride home, hanging onto those prickly branches, breathing in that spruce smell, and wondering if we were all going to go flying out the back of the car.

We always ended up with a tree way too big – because a tree that looks small out in the field suddenly become much bigger in a living room – and my father would cut off the top to make it fit, and so our trees never had that kind of shape you see in Christmas cards. We often ended up with a tree that would list to one side, as if it had been drinking too much eggnog, but my father would solve the problem by tying wires to the top and attaching them to curtain rods. Perhaps the best part is how great the whole house always smelled, that pine scent of the woods filling up the rooms. The tree stood in the corner of the living room, and my brother and I would crawl back behind the tree, where the thick green branches made a secret hiding spot.

Supper was always homemade chili over rice, and afterwards we would decorate the tree. My father would put on some Christmas music. My mother would open the big cardboard box of ornaments and pass them to us kids. She would stop and talk about her favorite ornaments sometimes, or tell stories from her own childhood. We'd stand on kitchen chairs to reach the top of the tree, and I always insisted on hanging some ornaments in the back of the tree, even though no one could see them. There was often some kind of big argument about whether or not to put on tinsel, but my mother loved tinsel and her side always won. The room was dimly lit by the glow of the big, colored Christmas tree lights that made the ornaments and tinsel shimmer.

It took all weekend really, getting the tree, decorating it, setting up the village under the tree, putting out the manger scene, and then finally, taking time to admire our work. My father would say, "Look at it from this angle!" and he'd lay down on the floor under the tree. And we'd all lay down, bumping our heads under the tree. That is still one of my favorite ways to look a Christmas tree, staring up at the swaying tinsel as it moves and catches the light.


Manorama said...

Were you and your family vegetarian when you were a child? (The mention of chili made me wonder this).

jo(e) said...

Manorama: No, the chili had meat in it. I think the reason my mother made chili on the Christmas tree day is because she could make it ahead of time and just heat it up when we got home. And she always served it over rice. I make chili, too, but mine is vegetarian.

Repressed Librarian said...

What a wonderful story!

Seeking Solace said...

What a great story. I grew up in a area that was known for Christmas tree growing. I loved going out to the tree farm to cut down a tree and then decorating it with our favorite ornaments!

mc said...

I'm with you. I love the ornaments I made as a kid -- the best is a wreath made of cockleburrs glued on a round piece of paper and spray-painted gold; I think it was a kindergarten project -- and I love the mish-mash effect of our tree. My parents always had the traditional argument in the parking lot of the tree lot, but after that it usually worked out ok.

ppb said...

You would love my tree. It's leaning like the tower of pisa. But I love it.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you tree philosophy. You reminded me of a favorite Christmas memory for me. I loved all the new words I heard my dad say when he pulled out the Christmas lights and had to untangle them and check for burned out bulbs before he strung them on the tree. Made me laugh every year!

Chip said...

and my father would always stand next to the tree with his arm up, saying, "Look, gang, this is where the ceiling is."

Hey, that's what I do when my kids settle on a tree!

I like your Christmas tree philosophy.

kathy a said...

wonderful story!

Mommy off the Record said...

That is a beautiful memory!

I have to admit that we purchased an artifical tree last year b/c I was getting sick and tired of the hassel of bringing home a real tree. Our pets were always spilling the water out of the bowl and it was a pain to string the lights.

But then I found out that artificial trees had lead in them and that killed it for me.

I do appreciate your pov about the tree not having to be perfect. I really like that idea and I completely agree. I like trees with lots of unique ornaments that show the history of the family. Those are the best kind of trees to me. Not the kind up in the Pottery Barn catalogues.

MonkeyPants said...

Your Christmas tree philosophy is similar to my family's. My brother and I were always embarrassed, as teenagers, to have the homemade, garishly-painted, play-dough ones on display. We cheered when our dog ate several (and didn't get sick). Now those are the ones I miss most.

Rana said...

Ah, Christmas tree smell. That alone is a reason I will never have an artificial "tree." We get told that trees smell like pine, and think that this means they smell like floor wax, but the real thing is so much more complex and citrusy and wonderful.

Our tradition is to get the tree the night before (a combination originally of procrastination and cheapness -- Christmas eve trees are usually marked down -- but we still do it, even though we can now cut down trees from my parents' land). Every year we buy more ornaments, usually waiting for the late-season sales, but there are always the old familiar ornaments that have to go up.

We used tinsel when I was a child, until the time the cat got sick eating it, and cats are part of the reason why the tree is attached to the wall with rope using an eyebolt my dad permanently installed for just that purpose.

I think of all the winter holiday traditions, I love the tree the best.

BeachMama said...

I have to admit that I have a very matchy tree, but as we add more to the family and little people help me decorate it is resembling the tree of my childhood more and more.

I too remember years when Dad had to tie wire to the tree and nail it to the wall so it wouldn't tip on us kids.

My favorite evening is decorating the tree. We always do it in the evening so we can see the effects of the lights as we decorate it. We do the back because the back faces a window. But there is always Christmas music and a bit of egg nog, one of my favorite Christmas events.

J said...

My childhood memories are very similar -- piling into the car with siblings, stomping around a field, bringing home a raggedy, lopsided tree that was always too big.

But then when we got home my dad would insist on letting the tree soak in a giant bucket of water overnight before we screwed it into the tree stand and strung it with lights and ornaments. That overnight wait was filled with such anticipation -- the smell of pine wafted in teasing drafts from the garage for 24 hours.

The next day, my mom would put on her favorite recording of Handel's Messiah (she has a collection) and mull apple cider for us to drink while my dad put up the lights. Against my mother's preference for pretty white lights, our tree always held a collection of the most unusual and garishly colored lights possible (we had the retro bubble lights and some novelty celophane-covered starlight mint lights, but my dad's favorite is a string of chili pepper lights he found years ago in a discount store). After the lights were up we would all hang ornaments together -- a random assortment of balls, figurines, childhood crafts, and handmade gifts.

But the last ornament to go on, and our favorite, was a white round ball covered in paper to look like a snowball. It split in half, and if you opened it up there was a baby elf made of red cloth inside. This is an ornament from my mother's childhood, and it gets more fragile and worn by the year, so it's always treated gingerly. It has no string, so it doesn't hang -- the snowball just gets nestled in the branches of the tree somewhere. It is a long-standing family tradition to hide the elfball in the tree; then whoever finds it moves it somewhere else, and the search continues. Looking for the elfball is still one of my favorite parts of going home for Christmas.

Yankee, Transferred said...

I am so with you on the look of a tree. My tree is covered with goodies I have collected over the years in many countries, plus a great assortment of shrinky-dinks and other kid-made things: cutouts of mittens on faded construction paper, kindergarten pictures glued onto cardboard hearts, covered with glitter and hanging by yarn, and wonderful gift ornaments from wonderful friends. To me, a coordinated, "perfect" tree is an a waste.
My kids feel the same way. We all oooh and aaah and "I remember THIS one" through the whole process. This year, I'll have to get under the tree and look up. I've never done that.

(un)relaxeddad said...

Oh. My. God. I'd forgotten all about the tree. This year we really have to get a proper one - it's the first year dudelet will really recognise it (he's been pointing out things he 'wants for Xmas' for months) and it needs to be something he'll know is, well, a tree.

I don't know if we have any decorations anywhere, though we seem to have a mass of Xmas lights (there's a Mark Eitzel song called 'Xmas Lights Spin'). I do remember that setting the tree up as a child was an immense operation involving huge amounts of baubles wrapped in tissue paper except for those twelve days. There was a crib, angel at the top, tinsel - and the decorations went all the way round. It was the kind of neighbourhood where people kind of checked out each other's trees. My sister and I would spend car rides right the way through the season competitively counting trees (why didn't we cheat?).

All things I haven't thought about for twenty years or so, I estimate. Those kind of memories of always bitter-sweet for me for a lot of reasons but it's good to have it brought back to mind.

Thanks, Jo(e)

zorra said...

I wish you could come and sit by my tree (well, it's not up yet, but when it is). You'd love it: along with the beautiful mementos of vacations past are fifty-year-old plastic birds with one wing, paper angels that may have adorned a present sometime in the mid-1960's,etc. There are some ornaments that my husband respectfully requests be put on the back side of the tree; I'm willing to do that,as long as I can still get a peek at them! It's a joy to greet those old friends every year! (Here's the raspberry! Here's the lion! Here's the angel from San Francisco!) We always drink egg nog and listen to "Messiah" while we decorate the tree. Looking forward to it!

Anonymous said...

I really like your philosophy, although we unfortunately don't have heirloom ornaments because my mom never cared for Christmas trees and the kids haven't made any yet -- my boys are a bit young, don't go to pre-school and don't like crafts very much. I started buying ornaments in 1995 after I got married and have added quite a few since them (not nearly enough to fill a whole tree, though).

I do like to color coordinate some of the tree decorations, though (since I do have to buy extra stuff because I don't have enough ornaments). One year I had light pink, lavender, and mint green bows and glass balls, plus the other "regular" ornaments, and the other years I do the traditional red, green and white decoration (bows, candy canes, etc).

The time of this post couldn't have been better because I have a question for you, since you do know more about environmentalism than I do. Leaving the discussions of a good smelling beautiful real tree versus the simetrically perfect artificial tree aside, what would the "environmentally correct" thing to do, get a live tree every year or an artificial one?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. A live tree has to be thrown out (good thing it's completely biodegradable), but it spends all its growing years producing oxygen, etc... and it might not have been planted had it not been the demand for Christmas tree. The fake ones will polute the environment after they're discarded many years from now, but they'll "save" trees from being cut down (will they really, though?).

Sorry for such a long comment :)

jo(e) said...

Lilian: A real tree is the ecological choice.

I could buy an artificial tree made from plastic (usually polyvinyl chloride) and metal, shipped all the way here from some place like Hong Kong, and it would end up in a landfill in less ten years. Or, I could drive a few miles from my house, to buy a tree that will be in my house for a few weeks, and then turned to mulch. With a real tree, nothing needs to end up in the landfill.

In my area, the profit from Christmas trees is a critical source of income that allows small farmers to hang onto their land, rather than selling it to developers. The trees are often planted on hillsides and pockets of land where other crops can't grow. The trees, while they are growing, do all the kinds of good things that trees do: providing oxygen, helping retain soil, reducing air pollution, providing habitat wildlife. For each tree cut down by a family for their Christmas tree, the tree farmer plants two or three seedlings.

In communities here, leftover Christmas trees are gathered up by the DPW and chopped into mulch, which we can then take free for our gardens in the spring.

I most certainly would not have an artificial tree in a household with small children or pets, since lead is used to stabilize the polyvinyl chloride. The possibility of lead exposure is slight, but it's there. At least, that is what a chemistry grad student explained to me.

Anonymous said...

Yay, thank you for the response!! I don't know whether trees in large cities are made into mulch or not (I don't think there's a separate truck collecting them, so I'm guessing not, at least not here in the Philly area), but I'm glad to hear even more reasons that I had thought about for real trees.

Good advice about lead and the plastic tree. After I reviewed The Organic Pregnancy book in my blog it opened my eyes to all these things.

Anonymous said...

We always had real trees at my parents' houses with homemade and some antique ornaments, but my husband's mom always had a fake white one with peach ornaments. So we've compromised on a fake green one with homemade and antique ornaments. Not the same....but if the only lights in the room are those from the tree, you can imagine it's real. Except it's odorless. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I just said to M that I had never realized that most people actually got artificial trees until recently. Christmas tree day was always a big deal for us too, we always got it on my mom's birthday so it was a double celebration.

M humors me with my tree picking rituals, it takes at least two hours to find just the right one. And it is always way too big.

Laura said...

jo(e), I'm so with you. We have such a mish mash of ornaments, including parts of things that the kids refuse to get rid of--little strips of ribbon, a star with four points. We're getting our tree this weekend and I can't wait.

landismom said...

Great post, jo(e), and I'm with you on the handmade tree ornaments. We're going away for all of Christmas week this year, so no tree. I'm not sure who's more disappointed about it--the kids or me!

Scrivener said...

Christmas trees were never all that big a deal for me. We had a tree every year and all, but I only sort of vaguely remember them. Now that I've got kids, I've been trying to be more conscious about the whole tree thing. Four years ago, we took Ella out to a farm in the country and fed the ducks and had cider and then went out and picked a tree and cut it down and brought it home. We decorated it and put the presents under it. It was really a very nice day.

Then on December 21, my wife went into labor and Chloe was born late that night. The next morning, my stepfather-in-law, who had stayed at our house with Ella while his wife came with us to the hospital, called the hospital room to let me know that the cats had knocked over the tree. I only just barely paid any attention, because really I didn't care a whole lot, but then when we got home from the hospital the next day, I discovered that he'd left the tree lying on the floor in the living room. The floor and all the presents were soaked with all the water that had been in the tree stand.

cloudscome said...

We always had a live tree with mixed up ornaments too. When Buster was small I got sick of dragging that dead tree out the week after Christmas so I got a living Norfolk Island Pine. It grows in a pot all year round, inside in winter and outside in summer. It grew about 5'6" tall over the past 14 years or so but I killed it last year when I had my third son home and forgot to water it. Last year I bought a fake tree cause it seemed easier. After reading this I think I have to get another live tree. Maybe one with a root ball I can plant in the yard? Not sure where to put any tree with a 20 month old and a small living room... I was actually thinking of skipping it altogether but of course I can't do that...Hmmm you have inspired me.

Anonymous said...

We just put the tree up this weekend, and for the first time Tristan helped me decorate it.

I LOVED this line in your post: To me, Christmas trees are like snow forts or sand castles or art projects: the fun part, the worthwhile part, the creative part, is the process of getting the tree and decorating it. The finished product is not what matters.

Love it!

A said...

Aesthetics and symbolism are not entirely mutually exclusive goals in decorating your Wholesale Christmas trees. You can strike a balance, if not, hit a compromise.

Melanie said...

I completely agree. Our Christmas trees are decorated with arts and crafts my children did in school, special ornaments that have a special place in my heart, etc. I don't think any of our ornaments match, but that's what makes it great! From buying our Wholesale Christmas trees, to stringing popcorn, to doing the tinsel, it is a tradition that is one of my personal favorites