How Lovely Are Thy Branches

I was a hardcore live Christmas tree person.  And by “live” Christmas tree, of course I literally mean dead tree, because no Frasier Fir takes root in anyone’s living room.  Even as a broke-ass college student, I scrounged up enough to buy a real live (dead) pine tree for my friends and me to adorn for the holidays.  It’s a shame social media had yet to be invented in my youth, because our handcrafted Bon Jovi Christmas ornaments, ripped from the pages of Metal Edge magazine, made for some real Kodak moments.  Oh, Dawnster, how I love you and loved your beat-to-hell silver Corolla, tree roped to the roof.

This live Christmas tree thing was instilled at birth.  For reasons I don’t fully grasp even now, it was a family imperative that my mom, my dad, my brother and me, as a collective, shopped for and agreed upon the one tree which would become THE family tree.  We’d traipse from this lot to that one across town, in search of the perfect pine, and we all HAD TO AGREE.  Any dissent meant the quest continued, and you’d think that once I became a horrible teenager, mortified even to be seen with my family in public, I’d have OK’ed the first one that even kinda rang my jingle bells.  False.  We’d bitch and roll our eyes the entire time, my brother and me, but refused to budge if a tree revealed the tiniest of bare spots or a wonky trunk.  You had to give my parents credit for their optimism and/or Clark Griswold-like commitment to a good old-fashioned family Christmas.  Wait a minute. . .  Maybe they just wanted to torture us, and making my brother and me suffer provided their particular brand of wry Christmas cheer.  In any event, pine trees cut from a forest were part of our Christmas tradition.

Until they weren’t.

I honestly can’t recall in which year it went down exactly that my parents threw in the towel, though my memory suggests I was in college, or perhaps even as late as graduate school after I’d moved out.  I fuzzily remember though, not shopping for the family tree one year, then coming to the realization that the tree in their living room was an imposter!!!  *gasp*  My mom and dad?  Bought a Christmas tree in a box?? A box!

This new instrument of trickery was identified by the retailer as Tree #42, and so “42” took on a life of its own.  42 had songs sung in homage: “O 42, O 42, how lovely are thy branches.” 42 was put on display the day after Thanksgiving.  42 was known as 42–not as “our Christmas tree” or even “the tree,” just 42.  As in, “Hey, we put the lights on ol’ 42.” and “Wow 42, is broader than we expected, and takes up a huge chunk of living room.”  I never said we weren’t weird.

Since our sons were babies, we’ve purchased our family tree at the same family lot, Sanfilippo’s on 27th Street.  Somehow, except for last year, it worked out that the same salesman/tree lot attendant worked with us, and he remembered us, which made for happy memories for the boys.  One year when they were still tiny, he threw the football around with them in the tree lot, so naturally that became what they did when shopping for our tree each year since.  He always cut us a fair deal, to a point that Tom overpaid him last year, giving him more than he’d asked for.  Side note: my husband was clearly not the money manager in our house, even before the head injury.

2019 hasn’t been what one might term “festive” for my family and me.  In light of our advancing ages and Tom’s accident this year, we wanted to simplify things a bit.  Around Thanksgiving, I began dropping hints that maybe we’d get an artificial tree this year, and kids, what do you think?  I’ll tell you what they thought: they did NOT approve.  Now mind you, they always went along for the ride–complaining significantly less than my brother and I did, my good boys–but that marked the end of any actual helping with the Christmas tree activities.  They’d hang maybe one or two ornaments before losing interest, and I’d be left hanging the remainder.  Shopping at that tree lot to purchase their live/dead Christmas tree had become their tradition.

Until it wasn’t.

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I give you the newest member of our family, Sierra Pine 84.

Welcome, 84.  I guess there’s some nice mathematical symmetry between 42 of my Christmas past and 84 of my present, right?  84 is nowhere near as fragrant as the real deal though, I’m afraid.  I couldn’t even look at the sales clerk as I completed the purchase because I was afraid I’d cry.  What exactly did I feel I was being disloyal to?  I felt traitorous to some tree out there, who’d otherwise have given its life to be loved in our home.  Traitorous to myself, my upholding of our tradition.  I felt that I’d let down our children, depriving them of their tradition in a year that forced us to abandon every tradition we’d ever known already.  I felt like I was letting my maybe-depression win by taking the easy way out and not getting a real tree.  When the stock kid loaded the box into the back of our SUV instead of roping it to the roof, OK, I admit that I shed a tear.  I did.

I spent waaaaaaaay more hours than I’d expected to, shaping 84’s branches into life-like perfection (an oxymoron, to be sure), and we didn’t even buy a pre-lit tree, so the prep took more time and effort than I’d anticipated.  Somehow that made me feel better.  Not having to get on my belly to water it twice daily was a little bonus too.  But the best part, the part that allowed me to release any doubt or guilt occurred as I trimmed the tree.

Ours is not a themed tree–we string multi-colored lights, we don’t display only certain styles of ornaments or wrap our tree in festive ribbon. Our tree tells the story of our lives–our family history hung on wire branches.  I’m terrible at decorating, but I’m really good at hanging ornaments.

Unpacking those storage containers, idle since January, opens a part of my sentimental heart every year.  Since our kids were babies, I’ve purchased them an ornament for St. Nick.  I swiped the idea from my sister-in-law Anne, who suggested it to me when mine were babies.  When they grow into their own homes and trees, they’ll have a jump start on their own set of ornaments.

As I admire our ornament collection, I’m reminded of the first vacation Tom and I took early on in our young love lives.  We bought the ugliest, tackiest ornament we could find in the ugliest, tackiest tourist gift shop, and that trend has continued (PS–Niagara Falls provided the worst worst ornament, followed closely by Albuquerque).  These tacky ornaments help us relive our travels.  I’m reminded of Deandre, a paraprofessional who I haven’t seen since we worked together in the mid-late ’90s, but who gave me a dove ornament I treasure.  I’m reminded of my grandma, who after retirement joined a senior center, crafting ornaments on her way through her 70s.  I’m reminded of the kids’ “first” ornaments, and the literary and TV characters they so loved during their little kid days.  I am in love with their kindergarten crafts, gingerbread men speckled with glitter and gumdrops and snowflakes or Santa hats with their cherubic little faces cut and pasted on.  My friend Ann, artist and art teacher extraordinaire, gifts us a handmade ornament every year, one more exquisite than the next.  I’m reminded that even when one of my students lives in devastating poverty, I meant enough to him that he taped up a broken Christmas ornament so he had something to give me.

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My 2019 additions are the pink and yellow Chuck Taylor shoe ornaments to match the much-loved pink and yellow Chuck Taylor shoes of my own.

Trimming 84, I’m reminded of how much love and how many wonderful people are in my life.  On any given day, in the back of my mind I know this, but the reminder doesn’t hurt.  Our artificial tree created the opportunity to reflect in a genuine way.  In a year I’m more than ready to kiss goodbye, I really needed this.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

19 thoughts on “How Lovely Are Thy Branches

  1. Have a happy! We went to the dark side about 10 yrs ago. Now we just cross our fingers that it lights up! XOXO Hammers. 84 seems significant….I just don’t know why….

    Liked by 1 person

    • You provide a constant stream of happiness, P.J. You and your words also provide many opportunities for reflection, which I NEED and I appreciate. All the best to you in this year to come. Thank you for making a huge impact to me and our family while we both muddled through one year of absolute dreck. Here’s to us!

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  2. I loved reading this blog. The real (dead) tree requirement must be a small town Wisconsin thing. I also insisted, upon marriage proposal, that 2 things must always be; never a tv in the bedroom and ALWAYS a live (dead) tree. I gave in about 5 years ago. Welcome to the dark side. #84 is a great story, told by one of the funniest people I know! Merry Christmas dear friend. I hope 2020 brings your family great, well deserved JOY!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always enjoy your posts, but as a card carrying member of team real tree (and an “every tree tells our story” kind of girl), this post really resonated with me. I’m sorry that your tree shopping tradition was put on the back burner this year, but 84 sure does light up the room, and she’s a wonderful display for your happy memories. Here’s to the next chapter, complete with more ugly, tacky ornaments. Wishing you all the best in 2020. Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was in New York a few weeks ago, Wendy, staying at my mother’s house, when she pulled down the Christmas decorations to ready the apartment for the holiday. Increasingly, she puts out a smaller sampling of ornamentals, and we haven’t had a tree in the house for as long as I can remember. (My sister and I are both in our forties now, but neither of us have children of our own, so there’s understandably less reason for holiday fanfare than there used to be.) Anyway, my mother pulled down a box of Christmas-tree ornaments containing many, many pieces that are at least as old as I am. And she basically told me and my sister to go through it and take what we want for our own homes. So we did.

    It was a weird sort of acknowledgment that the “old Christmases” are long behind us now. Don’t get me wrong: They’ve been different for a while — as they should be! There’d be something objectively wrong with us if we still trimmed the tree as we did in the eighties! But taking the ornaments back to California — out of the home that they’ve been kept in my entire life — was a conscious acceptance that the “good old days” ain’t ever comin’ back.

    Since my wife and I are spending Christmas in Los Angeles this year — an anomalous opportunity — we went and did something we never get a chance to do: bought a real tree for our apartment. And we’ve decorated it with not only the childhood ornaments I recently took custodianship of, but a ton of our own that we’ve accrued over the (many) years we’ve been together. We don’t have a single “filler” piece on the tree — not a glass ball or what have you. Every decoration is a meaningful little memory, none more so than the photo-cube ornament we have made every season with pics of the kittens we’ve fostered that year — our way of honoring and remembering the little souls that were and will always be a part of our family. So, I guess I say that to suggest all of us quietly, over time, nigh imperceptibly, move on to new traditions. As Carly Simon once sang: These are the good old days.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, Wendy. I celebrate your friendship and toast your health and happiness this holiday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is the BEST! We just dismantled 84 yesterday, and as I did while putting it up, I experienced that sentimentality in looking over the ornaments one more time before repacking them. I felt much better after the fact than I did while purchasing and “fluffing” the branches at first, and I do love not having to water. It’s the start of a new tradition, and we seem to have made it unscathed. It makes me wonder what memories my kids will carry into their adulthood. I sincerely hope you reminisced and enjoyed only the happiest of memories in your selection and trimming process. I love that your foster kitties have a forever home in your heart and on your tree.

      I also hope you experienced the holiday warmth and contentment that comes after the hustle and bustle settles. I have a feeling you did! Nothing but happiness and terrific success to you in 2020!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A few years ago, when Kate when off to university, it seemed to sad to put up a huge tree so we compromised and bought a potted tree that we could decorate and then plant in the spring. We have three beautiful ones in staggered size and a new one to plant this year. This is such an incredibly beautiful essay, Wendy–all the best to you and your family over the holiday season!

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a wonderful idea to get a tree you can replant–a series of forever trees! Thank you for saying something so nice, my friend. We made it to 2020, and that is definitely something to be happy for. All the best to you and yours this year. I’ve got a really good feeling about your rising star!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s beautiful!

    We, too, always had live trees. Until the year my son joined the US Marine Corps. He was at boot camp over Christmas. We bought a prelit tree that year. It stayed up until he returned home in February after boot camp graduation. We had a second Christmas with all the trimmings that year.

    Sometimes life throws a curve ball. When that happens, traditions change.

    Happy New Year! May this year be filled with joy and peace. And may it bring healing.

    Liked by 1 person

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