When my kids were little, they were always very excited about decorating the Christmas tree. They would wait eagerly for me to pull ornaments out of the box and then run over to put them on the tree. I can remember the first year my daughter was old enough to help. I handed her about a dozen ornaments, one at a time, and then when I looked up from the box, she had lined them all up on the very same branch, which was sagging from the weight. We'd play Christmas music while we decorated the tree, and then we'd all admire how it looked.
The teenage years have changed that heart-warming tradition. We still decorate the tree together, but the scene is less like a greeting card commercial and more like a Saturday Night Live skit. With teenagers, I've learned to lower my standards about family rituals. So long as the teenagers are gathered in the same room with us, I count them as happily participating. And if ridiculous jokes and teasing comments are how they express their affection, well, I guess I will take that.
Usually, my husband claims the job of putting on the tree lights, mostly because he has really specific ideas about how he wants them put on. We have the kind of old-fashioned strings of big lights in different colours, and he will spend hours carefully arranging the five strings of lights so that you can't see the green wires. He's got this whole system which he will carefully explain to anyone who will listen: "See, you put one light on the outside, and then weave the lights back to the inside of the tree, and put the next light on the inside, and then alternate." I myself have never understood this compulsion to hide the strings. Is he trying to fool people into thinking that the lights are magic, that somehow a pine tree will start glowing with red, blue, green, and white all on its own? Does he think that our friends and family are that stupid?
This year because we've all been pretty busy and because my husband's method takes forever and because I have no patience, I decided to break with tradition. I decided to put the lights on in the afternoon so that the tree would be all ready to decorate when my husband got home from work, saving all kinds of time, and preventing the usual scenario of us decorating a tree at midnight on a school night. My kids are fine with staying up until midnight on school nights, but I am getting too old to function past nine o'clock. I then offered each of my kids a chance to put the lights on, but they seemed to think it would be more fun to watch me tackle the job.
I am not very tall, so even standing on a kitchen chair, I cannot reach the top of the tree. You would think this would inspire my tallest son to offer to help, but instead, he chose to watch from the chair and mock my efforts. "MOM! What is that? You can't possibly be serious!"
I looked at him, "Want to help?"
"Oh, I would ... but I'm busy studying for my organic chem final."
"Studying? How is that studying? Since when does playing some weird riddle game on your laptop count at studying?"
Boy in Black looked up from the computer and waved his hand at the chemistry textbook at his feet. "I'm multi-tasking."
I tried to get help from the next tallest person, Shaggy Hair Boy, but he too claimed he was busy studying. Of course, since he was leaning over the same laptop as Boy in Black, engrossed in the same puzzle, it didn't look to me like he was studying anything but apparently as long as you are in the same room as your textbook, you get to use studying as an excuse.
Not that he didn't have helpful advice, though: "That's all wrong! You are not using the system!"
"The system?" I asked.
"Yeah," Boy in Black explained patiently. "You put one light on the outside, and then weave the lights back to the inside of the tree, and put the next light on the inside, and then alternate."
Shaggy Hair nodded, "No one is supposed to see the wires!'
Obviously, my husband has brainwashed them. I glared down from the chair where I was standing with strings of glowing lights draped all over my body. "Do either of you want to do this?"
They both laughed. Clearly, I was asking a rhetorical question. What self-respecting teenager would choose to help his mother when he could instead tease her about the way she did things?
I ended up putting the lights on in my own haphazard way, much to the delight of the teenagers who saw raw material for jokes in my every move. "You've ruined Christmas," Boy in Black announced in a somber tone, "It's just not the same if we can see those green wires."
Thankfully, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter and With-a-Why rallied with some holiday spirit and put some ornaments on the tree. My daughter likes rooting through the big box to find the home-made ones that have school photos on them. We've got ornaments from all my own kids, plus some of their cousins. Because the kids on my side of the family are painfully shy when they are young, the school photographs are never of a smiling happy child, but usually of a grim, terrified kid who is scared to death because some stranger is taking his photograph. Add the fact that the kids in the family are all pretty skinny – and well, the happy holiday ornaments look like they should come with text that say: "Send money and we will release this child."
Boy in Black's approach to decorating the tree was pretty low-key. By low-key, I mean that he and Sailor Boy gathered nearby with two laptop computers, playing some kind of horrible computer game that he claims is not violent at all, even though it's got the word war in the title, and he would look up now and then to tell a funny story about past Christmas tree mishaps. "Remember the time I decided that it would be fun to decorate the tree by lobbing ornaments across the room? Yeah, that got me out of decorating the tree for life."
Shaggy Hair and Blonde Niece were on the other end of the couch, both doing homework, occasionally consulting each other on matters of deep importance: "Which books did he say would be on the test?" But Blonde Niece would look up at the tree and say things like, "That looks nice."
So yeah, holiday traditions do change as a family gets older. My husband, to his credit, said only positive things about the way I'd put on the lights. Well, mainly, he said he was happy I had put them on so that he didn't have to. And even if certain young people in the room were too cool to admit how much they enjoyed the ritual, it felt good to have my two older kids home as we gathered to mock childhood photos, make jokes about each other, and decorate the Christmas tree.
Shaggy Hair Boy studying underneath the Christmas tree.