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.