As an artist, my dad wasn’t above stringing lights on a dead juniper stump and calling it Christmas. But my mother, more beholden to traditions, would always make sure we also had a legitimate tree in the window. And since my father was responsible for disposing of it, we often enjoyed the tree deep into the new year, when it had become a working science experiment of domesticated nature in decay.
Our log house had a high ceiling, and we picked trees that used every available square inch of the front window corridor. While the stumps didn’t take long to decorate, the trees did. We’d get the ladders out, pump the Christmas music, and get to work. To this day, random whiffs of fir and spruce in the forest fill me with Christmas nostalgia.
I’m an only child, so I represented an outsized segment of the tree-decorating workforce. My voice also carried weight in ornament placement decision-making, and, looking back, I can see that my perfectionist OCD tendencies were already on their way to becoming debilitating. I’d labor over the precise positioning of a single Rudolph, while the rest of the reindeer lay neglected in the box. Given that we had a storage room full of ornaments, and that I inherited my detail-oriented obsessiveness from my mother, the process could take days, with shifts broken up by meals and sleep.
I have far clearer memories of adorning tannenbaums and otherwise creating a cheerful Christmas atmosphere than I do of opening presents, which was supposed to be the big payoff for a child. But gifts, in fact, could be inordinately stressful for a weird little kid like me. If I couldn’t justify a present as useful, through an arbitrarily calculated cost-to-practicality formula, it became a source of guilt that hovered in the corner of my room, a taunting reminder that I had failed to properly utilize a loved one’s generosity.
Even today, the prospect of such offerings fills me with mild dread. I typically tell everybody I don’t want anything for Christmas or my birthday, but their kindness always trumps my anxieties, and, admittedly, I often receive something I love, whether or not it meets the ever-shifting criteria of my practicality test.
But put me to work and I’m a happy camper, hence my glee diving into ornament boxes as a boy, or doing a holiday-themed art project. My mother still has one such undertaking hanging on her wall, a framed clay Santa “sculpture,” its horrifically jointed limbs bent at impossible angles. One arm fell off, never to be seen again.
This Christmas will be my son’s first. At four months old, he will warm everybody’s heart but provide minimal manual labor assistance. I suppose I’ll have to wait awhile before we can start our own tree-decorating tradition.
We’re heading to my hometown of Livingston, where so many years ago I first learned to evenly space ornaments in rigidly consistent increments. As a father, I have to be careful not to impress my exacting inclinations and irrational angst upon my son. It’s OK if Prancer is 11 millimeters deeper on the branch than Blitzen. And gifts should be shrouded in anticipation, not trepidation.
But what I will pass on to him is the lesson I learned from my parents: There is no greater splendor on earth than the shared experience of loved ones, even if the needles are turning brown and that one light is just a tiny bit too far to the right.
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