When my firstborn was two years old, we put up our very first family Christmas tree. The first year of her life, we lived with my parents, and they had an artificial tree all decorated for us to enjoy.
But her second year….oh, joy! We were in a house of our own, and bought a beautiful, chubby spruce, and set it up in our little living room. We put up lights, ornaments, tinsel, popcorn on strings. I was in Heaven!
But two days after setting it all up, our little girl broke out from head to toe in hives. She itched, she swelled, she cried. I called the doctor, who told me that she was having an allergic reaction. (No, really?) He asked if there was anything new in the house, and I confessed to having exposed her to her first ever live tree. “Hmmph”, he said. And out went our beautiful spruce, off to the landfill.
This all came at a time in our lives when Paul and I were literally living on a shoestring. Barely out of grad school, we were down to one full time income and a little on the side, as we tried to take care of our little girl. Christmas gifts were limited to what we could get on sale at the local dollar store, and we found ourselves saving for several weeks so that we could have a festive Christmas dinner. The tree had been a splurge, and losing it felt like a terrible blow. Still, after hearing the doctor’s opinion, Paul took down the little spruce and headed off to KMart to buy its replacement.
For $24.95, he could have bought a tacky plastic tree that would have lasted through the holiday. For about $50, he could have got one that looked a bit like a real tree, if you squinted your eyes just right. He looked at both, but kept on going.
My husband, the world’s most frugal man, kept on looking until he found a non-allergenic, beautiful, festive tree that would last us many years. He spent, if I recall correctly, somewhere around $100 dollars on this fake blue spruce. This was equal, at the time, to at least three weeks of groceries. He brought that tree into our living room that cold December night, with thoughts of keeping Katie safe and healthy. He set it up, we decorated it, and it was absolutely gorgeous. It looked so real! It was tall, and full and absolutely symmetrical. It held the lights, the ornaments, the tinsel and the popcorn with regal aplomb. It was a fabulous tree!
And it lasted the holiday, and the one that followed. It came with us to our new house in the country, and was the first tree that our boys ever saw. Except for one impulsive year when I talked Paul into cutting down a live tree (which was too big, leaned to one side, fell over late at night and dropped all of its needles), it is the only Christmas tree that this family has ever gathered around.
It holds many memories, of course. There was the year that mice nested in its branches, filling the spaces with fiberglass from the basement insulation, and causing us to powerwash and brush the whole thing before it came inside. There was the year when it just refused to stand up straight, and had to be tied to the wall for the holiday. There was the year when the cats knocked off the lower ornaments, and the first year with the puppy sleeping under its branches.
There were the years when the kids were sick, the years when we were all sick, and the years when we woke up at 3 AM to open gifts.
Every Christmas, the kids have been given an ornament to add to the tree. The tradition started that very first year, quite by accident. On a trip to the local dollar store, I came across a cute “Big Bird” ornament, and bought it for my little girl. Every Christmas since, we have given an ornament to the kids to celebrate the year, to honor them, and to get them started on their own Christmases to come. Our Christmas tree has proudly displayed the hockey skates, the black bears, the hiking boots, the drums and guitars and pencils and coffee cups and sporting Santas.
This year, we will not have any of our kids living at home. Kate has her own apartment, Matt lives in his own place, and Tim plans to spend his college vacation with his brother.
And so the question is this: Do I set up the tree, just for Paul and I? Do I wait until the kids can come to help us? Do I follow tradition and decorate the house, knowing that it makes little difference to us, and understanding the kids will only be here for a night?
I am tempted to simply skip the whole tree trimming exercise. The mess, the confusion, the back breaking effort of taking the ornaments down from the attic.
But then I think of that honorable and sturdy spruce, tucked in his box all year. He has served us so well, with such loyalty, over 25 years of Christmases! He sits neglected for 11 months of the year, gathering dust and enduring the visits of mice. Doesn’t he deserve his two weeks of glory, shining from our window, filled with memories of Christmases past?
I will no doubt take him out in a week or so, dust him off, unpack the hundreds of ornaments and wrap him in lights. I will tenderly and sadly go through every bag of the kids’ ornaments, remembering each vacation, each milestone, each happy memory.
I’m glad that we have this old friend, this fake but honorable spruce tree, to force us to repeat the traditions of the past. I’m happy to have him there this year!
(And just a postscript to this note: the doctor was wrong. Katie isn’t allergic to trees. She is allergic to the antibiotic that the same doctor had put her on a few days before our call. Funny how things work out!!)