*Christmas trees talk.
Sure they do. For a month or more, a Christmas tree stands in a corner, in a window or in the middle of a room, and without uttering a sound, speaks volumes about the person who decorated it.
Doesn’t matter the person you attempt to project yourself as being. Doesn’t matter who you want to be. Your Christmas tree is going to tell us who you really are.
If this sounds trivial, that’s because it is. It came to me while I was out walking the day after Thanksgiving and glimpsed my first tree of the holiday season, a beautiful Douglas-Fir standing in the big picture window of a residence.
I didn’t look long. The tree was embarrassed enough already, having to literally be on display in this window 24/7, nearly naked.
It stood there, its expansive branches adorned in white cloth ribbons, Southern California sunshine and nothing else. No toy soldiers, no gingerbread men, little Santas, candy canes or even the most regular bulb ornament; no beads, assorted garnish and no lights. Days later, it still looks this way. It’s a tree in need of an intervention. However, that’s none of my business. Its owners obviously dig a naked Christmas tree.
We humans leave our persona on every thing we touch. The clothes we wear, where we live, our job, our car, what we pursue in life and what we consider important–in everything we do, there is our footprint. A Christmas tree is no different.
If you always insist on a really tall Christmas tree, that says something about you. What, I don’t know, but it’s got to mean something. Are people who prefer the scrawny little “Charlie Brown” trees more compassionate than those preferring one the size of Shaquille O’ Neal? You tell me. Still, I believe you can learn a lot about a person from their Christmas tree.
When I was a kid, at some point my family stopped buying real trees. Instead, we got an easy-to-assemble contraption comprised of a pole and branches made of synthetic green pine needles. What that tree said about us was “Hey, the ‘tree’ looks real and we’re saving money.”
What else mattered? This was the late ’60s, well into the Space Age. Not only was prefab not a dirty word, it denoted a certain modernity. We loved seeing the expressions of friends and family after we’d reveal to them the tree wasn’t real.
However, our fake green tree was the real thing compared to the aluminum Christmas tree, which came along in the ’50s and peaked in popularity in the mid ’60s.
I’d see them in barber shops and sitting on information desks in the lobbies of office buildings, basking in the glow of the revolving multicolored light plate that sat at the foot of the tree. I seem to recall aluminum trees somehow being a bourgeoisie thing.
Before my family settled into our fake tree era, we used to buy real ones. Mama saw to it that we got our tree no later until the first weekend after Thanksgiving.
Daddy had nothing to do with the Christmas tree process–Mama was tree warden. Tony, my younger brother, and I would bundle up, walk with her around the corner to Safeway and pick a tree from those being sold in the parking lot. The one we chose always seemed about ten feet tall.
It took the three of us to get it home, up the stairs and inside our small second floor apartment. How there was space for a good sized tree in a humble one bedroom abode that already hosted parents and five kids, is a feat of science and love that I’ll never quite grasp. But we did it.
Against a backdrop of Christmas music on the radio or whatever Christmas special was on the TV–think Perry Como or Andy Williams–we’d decorate the tree.
Tree trimming has its own psychology. There are leaders and there are worker bees. When decorating a tree together, people unwittingly align themselves accordingly. But not always. Disagreements aren’t uncommon (“All I’m sayin’ is, you got too many lights on that side…”). We didn’t have that problem at home. Mama ran the show, with us kids either emulating what she did, or doing as she directed us.
Mama wasn’t a kitchen sink kind of tree trimmer. She didn’t believe in bogging down a tree with a lot of stuff. We decked a tree that was complete without being cluttered.
When we finished, we’d turn out the living room lights and sit proudly gazing at our lit creation while sipping eggnog and munching homemade decorated sugar cookies shaped like Christmas trees.
Whatever you learn about decorating a tree at home is what you take with you out into the world. Trim a tree as an adult and discover in the style of your handiwork the memories of your childhood. Whenever we trim a tree, we reach back to a certain time in our lives. Or run away from it.
I broke with the tradition of buying a tree years ago. Nevertheless, not a Christmas goes by that I don’t have one. Dozens of them, actually: every tree I see throughout the holidays, I embrace as my own.
Especially the short ones and the scrawny ones and those that stand in windows, begging for somebody’s patience and imagination. And a star on top. In my household, no Christmas tree was complete without a star.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].
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