One of the weird things about having been raised as a New Critic—or maybe it’s just a natural inclination that learning to close-read Eliot in the 9th grade brought to the front of my brain/personality—is that I do tend to read pretty much everything as having layers of meaning for me to pull apart. Which is mostly great fun. So I helplessly apply that even to stuff like noticing when different neighbors dump their Christmas trees. Which means that I get a nasty sort of smile every year when the first tree to hit the curb is outside the house of the guy who runs Campus Crusade for Christ. His wife NEVER smiles at anyone in the neighborhood. Neither do his kids. I’ve never understood evangelicals who are grim—I mean, if you’re so sure of your own salvation, why wouldn’t you be cheerful?
But this post is actually about Christmas trees. Maybe you were hoping that you wouldn’t have to hear any more about it until after Halloween. Well, I’m not done with it. I don’t mean the theological side of it, not entirely, though I am much more oriented toward Incarnation than toward Resurrection as a Christian. Nope, I’m talking about the excessive, exhausting, blithering decorative practice of Christmas. Or, more to the point, why my tree is still up and my lights are still on.
I was taught to decorate a tree by my father. My father was a dentist. Most dentists are profoundly artisanal by nature and very often aesthetically obsessive. My father certainly was. Decorating the tree was a very specific and slightly crazed process: First you put the lights on and make sure they are perfectly, beautifully, lavishly placed. Then you turn the lights off to put the ornaments on—bigger ornaments toward the bottom. Every ornament must be hung so that it can hang freely (the tree should be able to shiver slightly when anyone walks by), and if it doesn’t, then you can trim the branch to make it hang right—but you must trim the branch so that it doesn’t look trimmed. You must make sure the tree is lavishly arrayed in ornaments. Then you do the tinsel—one piece at a time, each piece hanging freely (scissors help here). Then you turn the lights back on. And your tree is magical. God, my father made a beautiful tree. You can imagine how he was about the lights outside. The angriest I ever saw him was one year when local boys went on a bulb-shattering spree. Those boys were very lucky that he never caught them.
I’m much less obsessive than he was (my family might dispute this), and do different things with the tree every year (all red, all green, all this or that), but I am still finicky as all get out. I gave up on tinsel 30 years ago when I realized the cats were eating it, though.
Since a tree is essentially a huge floral arrangement, and floral arrangements are, by definition (not a huge fan of silk, me) ephemeral, why would you expect it to last very long? Besides, the needles fall off, don’t they? Not always, esp. if you’re careful about what sort of tree you buy. Still, the holiday is over by 12th Night/Epiphany, so why’s my tree still up? Aside from the fact that it still has its needles.
It makes my husband goofily happy. He grieves when it finally comes down every year on his birthday (mid-February) or right before Lent, whichever comes first. He grew up with Eugene-O’Neil-Irish-family Christmasses (ever seen the SNL Disfunctional Family Christmas skit?). And Christmas was pretty much the one thing my family was good at. Seamus has rejoiced in the folderol and fa-la-la of my family’s practice for 35 years and shows no sign of stopping. So the tree stays up and the outside lights stay on to brighten winter nights for as long as we can keep them. Unlike my mother (who lives in a bed-sit on our ground floor), I don’t actually have to fight him to take things down by that time. She’d leave her stuff up all year if I wasn’t able to convince her that it’s more fun when it comes out (the day after Thanksgiving, NOT the day after Halloween) if it’s been packed a way for a few months.
Besides, didn’t Dickens suggest that the world would be a kinder place if we all kept Christmas in our hearts?
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