“It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on”
--River, Joni Mitchell
An 11-foot fir tree has taken over our living room. Its branches, strong and green and fragrant, have been decorated with tinsel and apples, flour-and-salt dough angels and ornaments collected during our travels. On most branches, though, there are construction paper decorations, handprints turned to reindeers and wreaths with a child’s face peering through the center and a year written in crayon across the top. Our tree would never make the pages of House Beautiful, but it’s trimmed with memories collected and treasured throughout the years. It fills my heart to see it, just as it fills the space and overflows into the room.
We chose this particular tree in early November, rifling through the open lots at Exley’s to find exactly the tree we wanted. This was our first year tagging a tree at a tree farm. Usually we wait until the weekend before Dec. 16 (Libby’s birthday and our targeted date for getting the tree up) to go schlepping from lot to lot, hoping to find a tree appropriately large enough for our idea of Christmas. The rooms in our house are on the small side, but we have one space by the stairway where the ceiling is particularly high. That’s where the tree goes, where it can stand tall and proud and dwarf all of us so we can feel a bit like little children again.
My trees weren’t that tall when I grew up. Oh, I guess when you’re little, the tree doesn’t have to be as big. After all, the whole holiday season enveloped me then. In fact, the very first Christmas tree I remember was a small one. It fit on a bureau top in my grandmother’s home, where we lived while our house on Frances Avenue was being built. It was one of those '50s aluminum deals, its silver branches donned with shiny red balls and candy canes. And of course we had one of those magical light wheels with four colors, strategically facing the tree so that at any moment the aluminum would shimmer blue, then green, then suddenly turn to orange.
Back in those days, when we were preschoolers in flannel footie pajamas, we never helped put the tree up. None of us—not even the grown-ups—took part in that ritual. Instead, we would hang our stockings on the fake paper mantle, say our Christmas Eve prayers and sing happy birthday to Jesus, then hop into the pull-out sofa bed in Granny’s back room. And somehow, overnight, Santa found enough time on his round-the-world journey to put up and decorate our tree. When we awoke Christmas morning, our stockings were full, gifts piled on the floor, and the shiny color wheel was radiating rainbows on our silver tree.
When we moved into our own house, the silver tree didn’t follow. I guess that was Santa’s gift to Granny, or maybe he just figured we were old enough to decorate ourselves. That was when we started buying a live Christmas tree, visiting lots or farms to find one full enough to hold the ever-increasing collection of decoration that accumulates in a house with a bunch of creative siblings.
I remember one year, we tried to imitate Santa and do the tree decoration in one night—Christmas Eve. My dad took us out to Gaudio’s, where the trees out front were being sold half price and the sales guys were trying to stay jolly while secretly wishing we would hurry up and choose so they could get home to their families and egg nog. We found a last-minute tree, a remainder left behind by those who did their holiday shopping in a timely manner. It may have been a leftover, but we tied it to the top of the light blue station wagon and took it home and decorated it. We don’t have pictures, so you’ll have to take my word that it was as beautiful as any that graced the Winter Wonderland inside Gaudio’s that year.
Since that time, I’ve had a variety of trees—from the budget selection at the Brooklawn circle to those “direct from Canada” sold by the Boy Scouts in Verga and everything in between. And every year, we decorate it in that mixed-up, mismatched fashion, with no color coordination or theme like those. Martha Stewart may frown on our methods, but I find the results are always the same. Our tree is trimmed in memories, and it shines with love, just as bright and magic as the aluminum trees of old.