When is a Christmas tree not a Christmas tree? When the naysayers of our society have a problem with the “word” Christmas and want to call it a holiday tree.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem to fit. When people want to wish me a “happy holiday,” I cringe, then retort, “You mean Christmas, don’t you?” And I add a little chagrin to their grin.
We grew up in a modest neighborhood as children. No matter how tight our budget was, my immigrant parents always made sure we put Christ into Christmas. Dad always managed to erect the biggest tree he could find.
Because he worked seven days a week in his luncheonette, many times the tree didn’t go up until Christmas Eve. I suspect he combed the lots of Somerville in that final hour, looking for the biggest deal he could find for his big tree.
As I recall one Christmas, he had difficulty finding a commercial tree. Off into the woods he roamed to cut down a balsam. Good thing the neighbors didn’t catch him or he would have had some explaining to do.
I was cut from the same mold. For years, we ventured in and out of the many tree lots of my city, looking for the perfect tree. Being a bad judge of character and size, the lucky tree that found our home was usually higher than our ceiling.
I was about to take a cutter to it when one of my kids let out a yelp.
“Dad, how would you like your head cut off?” the child reminded me. “Can’t we just keep it long?”
And we did. A heavy angel on top caused it to droop like an arch. Indeed, it was our very own archangel. As the years progressed, we tagged and cut our own at a tree farm, replete with Santa, hot chocolate, and all the magic that surrounded the search.
Big was always beautiful with me. My wife was a little more sedate when it came to the tree. She found “small” to be more practical. Easier to decorate with fewer needles covering the rug. I remember one year, because we were so late, all that was left of our tree were the barren branches. The needles were completely detached.
It was rather sad seeing something so stately standing there with bare limbs and just a few bits of tinsel clinging to it. It was still the tree of life.
As the children grew older, we cut down a notch or two once they were off to college and on to their married lives. The tradition of a larger-than-normal tree remained steadfast. The cards never diminished. Neither did the gifts. Our tree was the centerpiece, above the lights, our wreaths, our bells and whistles.
And then we did the unthinkable. We went vinyl. A fake tree to match the bowl of wax fruit in our living room. Mercy! I could have died a thousand deaths. Truth be told, I was overruled by another hierarchy.
“No fuss, no bother,” came the word. “Look at this! Full, balanced branches, perfectly tapered with non-shed needles. Burn a candle if you want the smell.”
I had two of them going at once and all it did was make me nauseated. It was the first time in my life I owned a Christmas tree that didn’t pull its weight.
When my mother was inside a nursing home during the last few years, I wanted her to reconnect with Christmas. Off to the store we trekked to pick up a pygmy tree, perfect for her table. There it stood right before her bed, decorated with lights.
She would retire for the night with the same twinkle in her eyes. Christmas had turned her tiny quarters into a wonderland. We even added a music box. It was as close as we could get to those nostalgic days of yesteryear.
Two years ago, on the eve of her 99th birthday, she took a turn for the worst just before Thanksgiving. One of her final wishes during a bedside chat centered upon a lifelong Christmas tradition.
She turned to me in her declining state and uttered, “Tommy. Don’t forget my tree.”
I didn’t. We put her tree up a bit earlier than usual that year. The joy in her heart spilled out into the facility. She died with Christmas in her heart.
I cleared out her room and brought the miniature home, settling upon an obvious conclusion. My children are gone. We have no guests visiting us. Nobody’s coming to our home. We make the visits. So up went Mom’s tree in her memory. I lit a pine tea light and there you had it. Matter of fact, I liked it so much, I pulled the same gesture again this year.