Lately, as we spend more and more time in the desert, my parents have been flirting with the idea of a plastic Christmas tree. My Dad rightly thinks it would be cheaper in the long run and wrongly thinks it would be easier to set up (clearly he has never experienced the uniquely frustrating parts of this process.) My mom always counters with “But it won’t smell like a Christmas tree!” and we troop out to an abandoned parking lot to buy the least pathetic real tree we can find. Most likely it has traveled all the way from Oregon or Montana just to die in our living room. I love real trees.
Decorating the tree is one of my favorite holiday traditions. We climb into the back of the tiny crawl space in my closet to find the red and green ornament boxes and carry them downstairs. The rattling brings the cat to the living room to investigate (no doubt to plan in advance which precious, irreplaceable glass ornament he’ll attempt to break this year.) The lid comes off the box, and Miriam and I carefully unwrap the first level of ornaments. The ornaments always go into the box in the same order at the end of the christmas season, all carefully wrapped in tissue paper. Glass ornaments and the little wooden angels are on the first level, along with the collection of colorful cardboard birds from Metropolitan Museum of Art and a series of tatted lace snowflakes made by my Grandmother. These go on the tree in strategic places, glass ornaments hung next to christmas lights in order to make them sparkle, wooden angels hung on the highest branches, as if they singing in a heavenly choir with the angel that tops our tree.
The second level is an eclectic mix of our family’s favorite ornaments. Many of them have stories that my mom tells every year. I pull out the tiny little train with a puff of cotton smoke coming out of its stack, and mom says “Martha got that for us in London.” brightly colored wooden carolers and ice skaters are hung, and mom says, “These were some of the first ornaments we got back when we were in Graduate school.” My sister and I have heard these stories so many times (probably over close to twenty christmases) that we can recite them all ourselves.
The last level are the ornaments that most likely won’t fit on the tree, but are kept for sentimental reasons. They tend to be the largest, heaviest ornaments (such as the silly stuffed moose and reindeer my Aunt Chris gave my sister and I one year). On this level we also keep the silver an red beads that go on the tree last as the final touch, right after we hang the red ball ornaments that tie the whole thing together. After we’ve hung all the ornaments we can fit on the tree, the squares of tissue paper that the ornaments were wrapped in are carefully smoothed out, folded, and put back in their boxes ready to wrap ornaments when the tree comes down sometime in March. I’m sure some of those squares of paper are 15 or 20 years old and have wrapped ornaments since my family lived in Rochester, New York. That’s just the sort of person my mom is.