‘Tis the Season…


We put up our Christmas decorations this weekend. Yes, this past weekend. They’re up. Tough if you don’t like it. We do. And you know what? It took me down memory lane. Big surprise there, huh?

Christmas tree lights ain’t what they used to be. I noticed this the first time back in 2010, when my loving spouse and I went Christmas light shopping for the first time in years. Most of them, at least at my local Walmart, are LED strings. While they’re bright and colorful, my wife nailed it when she said they’re “just as bright, not as sparkly” as the incandescents. She’s right, they’re not.

But this year, we found the more traditional (to us) incandescent strings of white lights, and I took a few hours out of my life Saturday to put them on our three miniature trees. (Yes, three.) Each strand of 100 added brilliance and warmth to the room. My back screamed by the end of it all, but it was worth it to see the kids’ eyes light up when they saw.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

Our kids hang the ornaments, Ness helps them with the tiny strings of bead garland, and they each put a topper on one of the trees. By the end, of course, the kids are bored senseless and just want it over with, but we have a good time until then. And next year the lights will already be in place so that hassle won’t be there. All in all, we have a good time.

I remember how unpleasant Christmas tree decorating used to be for me. Year after year it seemed to get worse. I think, in a weird way, that taught me how important it is to have, not a professionally-beautiful tree, but a joyful one.

Growing up, my mother always made sure we had a department-store perfect Christmas tree. My earliest memories are of a white artificial tree. My father inserted wooden “limbs” into the pre-drilled “trunk”, each peg and hole numbered with handwritten marker, to indicate where they went. I don’t know whether my dad numbered them or if the tree came that way, but artificial trees certainly aren’t like that now, are they?

My mother’s perfect trees demanded precision, exacting standards, and no compromise. Sometime before 1976, she started insisting on real trees in lieu of the old artificial one, with its fuzzy-shiny garland and fragile glass bulbs everywhere. The real tree couldn’t be a standard Douglas fir, either; no, it had to be a Blue Spruce or Cypress or some other conifer with small, delicate needles and none of the wide gaps between strata of limbs. It must be full, it must be without holes in the needle coat, and it must stand straight.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

And so we’d go to a Christmas tree lot every year and spend endless hours searching for the right tree, perfect and unblemished, and when the first search inevitably turned to failure, we trudged away to another lot, and another. Each time my mother openly criticized the vendor and his product and embarrassed us, until at last we found a tree upon which she could settle. Then we’d get it home and begin the fun-filled task of positioning the tree, so only the perfection in her mind’s eye, would show. Twist the stand this way, fool! Place that part there. More. More. Too much, damn you! No, hide that hole, you idiots! Don’t have that facing out! Then the beer or wine would flow and things went downhill from there.

She also demanded the smaller, more delicate indoor lights rather than the big, indoor/outdoor jobbies. Those were relegated to the eaves along the façade of the house. My father had to get up on the roof and hang over the gutters to nail them in place, while my mother stood hands on hips below and barked instructions on how the lights weren’t evenly spaced, or were crooked and pointed willy-nilly rather than straight down.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

When we moved to a new subdivision later, the house had a vaulted living room ceiling. And my mother, because she insisted on extravagance rivaling the Rockefeller Center’s annual tree, demanded taller and taller trees to fill the vertical space. And, of course, this meant more and more ornaments and lights to make the tree glow and sparkle as her mind’s eye envisioned. Which, of course, meant more shopping for ornaments – and not cheap stuff from K-Mart or Ben Franklin or Pay-n-Save. No, this meant department store ornament shopping, with price tags to prove it. She kept things reasonable when only my dad worked. In the 80s, she went back to the workforce, and felt free to spend freely. Very freely. So, the trees got bigger, the ornaments more expensive, and the gifts more plentiful. She spent years collecting a “Christmas Village” of tiny porcelain buildings, and Nativity sets which cost hundreds of dollars. And she’d drink and froth and slather and snarl to have the tree done just so by her slave laborers the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Small wonder then my dad seemed to hate the holiday season. He didn’t really, of course, he just hated the preparations. I can’t say I blame him; my mother didn’t really do much but supervise and get nasty. OH, and get drunk. Let me not forget that part. Beer in one hand, yelling and frothing for perfection as she slowly submerged into slurred speech and staggering.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

When finished, the trees were always perfect and beautiful. Every bow precisely placed, not too far from its neighbors, neither too near. Every ornament in the exact perfect spot such that no voids remained, every inch of tree treated the eye to a touch of beauty or whimsy. Thousands upon thousands of white lights covered the increasingly massive trees afforded by a vaulted living room ceiling, and it sparkled within and without, because my mother demanded we make the lights appear as stars. Cords ran up the trunk, hidden from view, and nowhere else.

The ever-larger angel figures my mother found to adorn the tops – the last one I  remember had its own power supply because there were so many lights – required an industrial ladder 20 feet long to place. My dad had to bring that ladder home from work every year to get the topper on the dizzying top bough of the tree. (Eventually, we learned to put the topper on first, while the tree could be laid on its side.) The displays were worthy of Better Homes and Gardens or Martha Stewart Living magazine covers.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

And we hated it. We never wanted to see it again when we finished. We foresaw the anguish, the torture, of taking the monstrous beast down after January 6th, dry branches poking and stabbing to avenge the tree’s lost life. Each light strand had to be carefully stowed for reuse the following year, the ornaments each placed back in their original packaging to protect the precious gems. Each ribbon, every bow, had to be returned to its original state before being packed away in cardboard boxes which were tossed into the garage without a second thought, some of the treasures within crushed or chipped during their long slumber.

And while we plucked the delicate glass fruit from the precarious perches, and the creaking, dry timber of the tree shook dry, crackling needles into the carpet, my mother sat and watched and drank and barked and frothed and slathered below.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

So it is with great pride I say my mother’s gift of perfectionism passed down to me, and I haven’t in any way inflicted it on my family. The children place the ornaments without concern of “doing it wrong”. I guide them, gently, when they’re getting narrow of vision and only hang ornaments in one area of the trees, but other than that, they’re free to do it as it pleases them. The lights are my responsibility. My wife hates doing lights, and I don’t mind, so it works out. The rest of the decorating is her chore, and so far, so good. We’re happy, there are no fights, no one is an idiot, a fool or a moron, no one is slurring-staggering drunk, and the children don’t seem to hate doing the tree. They get bored and express that, but they still help. When we make them. Otherwise they’d rather watch videos on YouTube or play games. Who wouldn’t? (Me. I like this stuff.)

And they look forward to Christmas just as much as I did, with none of the trepidation about the torture and fighting and frothing, slathering, order-barking I dealt with growing up. In that, I take a great deal of pride.

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Ho ho ho, y’all.

-jdt-

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