Ben and I went to get our Christmas tree on Friday, the earliest I’ve ever had a tree. It’s like bringing home a pet. It has to be watered every three hours around the clock for the first 24 hours, or it dries out, stops “percolating,” and doesn’t last the month. As if I needed anything else to disrupt my sleep, Ben and I took turns getting up to feed the baby, er, water the tree.
When I told mom that we got a tree, her first response was, “Christmas is a month away.”
“I can enjoy the tree for a month, then,” I said.
When I start talking about Christmas, she says things like, “Well, you know how I feel about Christmas.” Over the years mom has done her best to put aside her ambiguity around Christmas, but I know it’s there.
Perhaps it has something to do with being raised in a single parent home in the first two decades of the 20th century when divorce was not all that common. My grandfather left the family, returning long enough at one point to get my grandmother pregnant with a third child. When mom was 12 she saw her mother almost bleed to death from an illegal abortion. Those kind of memories tend to coagulate during the Christmas season.
My Christmas memories are also mixed. Mom and I used to go to the Christmas Eve candlelight ceremony, a ritual I loved and a memory I still cherish. I also remember us decorating the tree with tinsel. I also remember that we always bought my stepfather a tie and then he got drunk.
I don’t remember if it was just one Christmas, or several, but I loved visiting my grandmother on Christmas. She had remarried at 65 to Pop, my step-grandpa. They lived in a tiny bungalow in San Gabriel, California. I remember everything about that house including the tiny Christmas tree she placed in the dormer window in the front room. It is a permanent Christmas memory, tinged with a little sadness that I didn’t get to live with her year-round.
Years of Christmas seasons have come and gone. I became a single parent and every other year my son would go to his father’s house for Christmas. But I would put up the tree, wrap the presents and lay them out, and when he came home, he, mom, and I would celebrate. When we first moved to Washington we began a yearly tradition of cutting down our own tree. The first year Jared and I hadn’t yet learned the rules–trees look much smaller in a forest of giants. We came home with a ten-foot tree and mom, at 84, helped us set it up, the three of us laughing as mom held onto the trunk of the tree so tight we couldn’t move it to set it straight in the stand.
As Jared grew up he no longer wanted to hunt for the tree. I went with friends, brought home the tree, and decorated it myself. We had our tree, no matter what. It became my offering.
When Jared was home on Christmas, we made it a good time, but as he grew up it was hard for me to balance the needs of an 80 something year-old and an adolescent. Mom was content to sit in a rocking chair and listen to classical music. Jared wanted some action. The best I could do was take him to a movie. For four years running, we went to see The Lord of the Rings. We would come home later, have pie with Grandma and take her home.
Now Ben and I go searching for a tree–this year to a produce stand in the lower valley. Ben put it in the stand, set the alarm for 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. to water, and left me to decorate.
It’s nothing fancy, but I see it as a piece of art–the scent of pine, the lights, the ornaments I’ve been putting on the tree for nearly three decades. Angels and homemade stuffed bears, wooden snowmen and and snowmen made from bells with Jared and my names printed on them, musical instruments, a stuffed Santa, and Disney characters from The Little Mermaid provide a mix of childhood whimsy and a spirit-filled tree. The white lights for the light of Christ, the red ornaments depicting the blood of Christ, and the wooden snowmen and Santa Claus depict the pagan characteristics of Christmas. Well, okay, the Christmas tree is pagan as well. Not to mention that Jesus was supposedly born in April.
But I embrace the contradictions and complexities of Christmas, even when it’s hard, even as mom struggles with her mixed feelings, even as my son finds a new path and celebrates with new people, even as others debate the incongruities of Christmas–the tree must go up.