Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tree Huggers

O tannenbaum! Like so many people, I have warm memories of Christmas trees. 

Growing up in midtown Manhattan, I would often accompany my father to purchase our tree from one of the sidewalk vendors. Like everything in New York City, these trees were available for, shall we say, a premium; some years, we had to wait until close to Christmas in order to negotiate a better price. Until I was old enough to object, my father used me as a pitiful little accomplice. He would coach me en route. "Oh Daddy, this one is so nice. I know it's our tree. I just know it." My father (who was a professional actor with Broadway credits) would then sheepishly admit to the seller that he didn't have quite enough for the tree his small daughter had fallen in love with. Eventually I became too big (and too self-conscious) and my role was handed down to my sister, whose performance was even more Dickensian than mine. Step aside, Little Nell, step aside.

My mother had a beautiful collection of ornaments that seemed fragile and precious and altogether magical. A Santa from her years studying in Germany, gold and silver stars with shiny streamers, glass balls, endearing felt creatures. I loved helping with the tree as long as I lived at home, and looked forward to seeing it each year when I visited from college.

So, of course, I knew that Christmas trees would be important to my own holiday traditions.

My husband would argue that I've taken it a little too far.

Yes, I'm a Christmas tree junkie. I trim four trees each year: living room, dining room, guest room and my now teen daughter's room. (Six years ago, I was very sick, having contracted a hateful intestinal virus after some surgery. We pared back; we only had two trees.) 

The first year we put a tree in our then little girl's room, she was distressed to realize that it was the smallest tree in the house. This wasn't meant as a slight. First of all, despite a bunch of "Baby's 1st Christmas" ornaments, we had less trimmings for her. Also, a seven-foot tree felt — I don't know — awkward for a person who was barely three feet high herself.

Still, we listened. The next year, one of our trees was taller than we expected. And, since my daughter's ceiling is actually higher than those in other rooms, the giant fir became hers.

Of course, this tradition necessitated amassing another tree's worth of ornaments. We started with teddy bears of all types: knit, wooden, quilted in tartan plaid, small jointed plush. A year or two later (I confess these Christmases run together), an art director I work with gave her a box of classic cartoon characters (Bullwinkle, the Chipmunks, that scientist dog guy whose name I can't recall). My best friend gave her a collector's set of exquisitely carved Alice in Wonderland figures. There were Mickey Mouses, Snoopy and Woodstock, Disney Princesses and a bevy of Barbies, decked out in festive finery (yes, they certainly know how to put the ho in ho-liday).

Just as the decorations in her room evolved from fairies to horses, her Christmas tree eventually went equine as well. People gave her horse ornaments, rider ornaments, saddle and boot and bridle ornaments. She had (multiple) sets of lights with glowing plastic steeds where bare bulbs would otherwise be. She had a hand-embroidered garland of "tack" (that would be equestrian equipment for those of you who don't spend every moment of discretionary time at a stable, as I — alas — do). My husband brought her a beautiful painted pony from a business trip to Prague, which proudly serves as her topper.

This year, much to my wonder, she demanded a smaller tree. Much smaller. (Really. Except that it's symmetrical and actually has several branches, it could be a Charlie Brown tree.) This surprised me. She has the space; heaven knows she has the ornaments. No, she was adamant. She wanted a tiny tree.

Lesson learned: don't fight the fights that aren't worth fighting. Okay. We'd just pull a few (a very few) of her decorations and keep the rest packed away. On the bright side, she saved us $25.

My husband was coerced into tree-shopping and installing prior to leaving for a weekend with friends. As per usual, I set about trimming solo. I complain (I complain a lot), but I enjoy this all-day ritual. I listen to my favorite Christmas albums, sip coffee in the morning and egg nog in the afternoon. By dinnertime, the three main trees were up and, if I do say so myself, they looked stunning. I had to wait on the tree in my daughter's room because she needed to go through her ornaments and decide which fortunate few would be on display this year.

We sat together on her carpet. She unwrapped and passed judgement; I rewrapped. A fairly large assortment of 'maybes' was quickly whittled down to a choice dozen or so that ended up on the tree. I was surprised by some of the choices — both affirmative and negative. The thing is, to my daughter, they are all just ornaments. To me, they are distinct memories. Each and every one is associated with a particular giver back in some particular December. I seem to forget where I leave my phone on a fairly regular basis, but I do remember the back story of all our Christmas ornaments.

My strategy this year was to let her have her way. If the bristly brush squirrel ornament somehow ranked higher than the bejeweled carousel horse, well, so be it. I was proud of my ability to hold my tongue.

Until a small wooden rocking horse was moved from the 'maybe' pile to the 'no.' I couldn't help it; a disappointed "Oh," escaped.

She looked at me quizzically.

"That's from the first Christmas tree I ever had that was my own. In my tiny apartment in Greenwich Village." I turned it over for her so she could see the date: 1984.

She nodded almost imperceptibly. Then, she took the little rocking horse back and put it on her tree.

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