Ah…yes. Christmas trees at the Swanson house. Fa la la la la…
I can remember, as a very young girl, the year we had kittens. Many kittens, mind you. Walking past the Christmas tree and seeing all these teeny tiny cute little velvet paws poking out, stabbing at all the ornaments. Paws everywhere. Ornaments popping onto the ground and rolling around the livingroom. Little felt soldiers being swiped away in the night, kidnapped, never to reappear. Branches bouncing up and down. Garland pulled into the middle of the tree and then mysteriously ending up down the hallway.
There was the year my dad paid for a tree and told them he’d come back for it. By the time we went back, they had packed up and closed and moved the entire tree lot. All gone. My dad was standing there in an empty parking lot telling us, “I’m tellin’ you, it was RIGHT here! I swear!”
My dad was a notoriously bad tree picker-outer. God bless him, we spent hours and hours in the cold every year. Stomping our frozen feet. Rubbing our mittened little hands while our dad looked for the perfect tree. From Frank’s Nursery to all the corner tree lots for miles and miles until the sun was tiring and we were, too.
My mom would wait for him to come home and then just roll her eyes. “Oh, God, Swanson,” she’d say, shaking her head. The trees he’d pick out, year after year, always reminded me of some of the more stout women I knew growing up. Like a fabulous Polish grandmother. Wide as they were tall. Like a meatball of a tree. Muscular. No shape to even hint that they were trees and not bushes. They spread out across the whole wall and crammed up against the ceiling and there was nothing to trim at the bottom that could have even remotely helped my dad in my mom’s opinion. The ornament on the top of the tree would then be jammed up there kind of sideways and the tree was so dense and thick that you couldn’t even get any ornaments to hang pretty from the branches. They all kind of laid on the outside of it like tattoos on an offensive lineman.
I can still hear her. Shaking her head. “Oh, God, Swanson…”
There was the first tree I had when I moved out on my own. I didn’t have money for ornaments so I hung dog bones tied with beautiful red ribbons all over the tree. It was so lovely and I was so proud of myself. I came home from work the next day to find that my dog had dragged the tree all over the house and around in circles. Ribbons and needles and water everywhere. Bone ornaments mysteriously nowhere to be found.
Then there was the tree that Mr. Hobbes, my cat, thought was his own personal jungle. He would proudly lay under the tree all day, surveying his kingdom like a wild lion. Paws crossed in front of him. Chest puffed out. Sly smile. Hint of swagger.
My dog, Coda, all hundred and twenty pounds of him, thought that looked like a pretty neat place to lay as well. He crawled all under that tree and, when he stood up, the whole tree got caught on his big, heavy shoulders. Branches got stuck in his collar and he panicked and the water basin was spilling and he was freaking out, eyes like saucers, leaping like a colt that didn’t want to be broken. Throwing that tree this way and that. Ornaments flying. Cat cursing.
Speaking of the cat….Nobody told me that you can’t put tinsel on Christmas trees when you have a cat. I came home to find my cat standing there with a dozen strings of tinsel hanging from his mouth, half-swallowed. That was the last year of tinsel.
The ornaments were another matter entirely. My mom had ornaments that her parents had brought with them from Sweden. Gorgeous, fragile, thin, glass ornaments. Those always were put at the top of the tree where cats and kids dared not venture. She would get a set of three ornaments each year, one for my two brothers and me. She and her best friend would trade ornaments each year so there was a whole friendship group of ornaments just between the two of them.
One of the sweetest memories I treasure is of my dad’s last Christmas. He wasn’t thinking all that clearly by then but he was happy to help decorate. He put all the ornaments on one branch. The whole side of the tree was bare except for one branch just loaded and bowing with ornaments. It was so sweet and he was so happy and standing there smiling that beautiful smile…Makes me cry still.
Oh, Christmas trees…
Seems we get so caught up with what’s under the trees that sometimes we forget about the trees themselves. It’s no coincidence to me that we use a tree to map out our families. Our “family trees.”
On each of our Christmas trees, there tells our life stories. Branches dripping with every reminder of our lives. Every sweet celebration and every heart-touching moment. Every person and pet we ever drew near to our hearts.
Ornaments from grandparents who starved on bitterly-cold freighters, carrying with them a precious few possessions to a new land that promised hope for themselves and their families. Ornaments of glitter, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and paste, made in elementary school and girl scouts.
There are the ornaments that mark cultural trends and long-beloved friends. Dated ornaments marking first Christmases of couples and babies and homes. The pets we’ve loved. The children, now adults. The adults now gone.
Perhaps our trees are there to remind us to remember our roots. To return to them in some measure. Maybe to remind us to set a center. To find somewhere to call home. Somewhere to return to that lights a warm and safe place in our tired hearts. A place where we bring and remember all of our gifts, no matter the month, no matter the year. A place that shines a sweet and tender light through the front windows of our souls.
Putting up the tree and decorating our homes are special traditions because, in large part, nothing much changes for most of us. The decorations are the same. The menu is the same. The holiday cookies and fudge, thank God, are the same. The Christmas sweater is the same (eleven years and counting!). Often the gifts are even the same (see neck ties). Lord knows the wrapping is literally the same as the year before. Ha.
Our traditions and rituals afford us comfort. Because each of us has had at least one special Christmas in our lives, the redoing of Christmas each year in the same fashion returns us to then. To “Once upon a time.” To better. Maybe simpler. Sweeter. Something on which we can depend.
We are returned to any one of all the Christmases we have enjoyed. One before we lost. One before we hurt. One before we took ill. One before we grieved.
In a world of such chaos and noise and instability, perhaps we all need a place to return to when we didn’t have to remember anyone lost. A time when we didn’t need to seek out hope because she greeted us each morning in the twinkling of innocent and believing eyes. A place where we didn’t have to seek out dreams because we still nurtured and celebrated our imaginations and believed that literally everything was possible. Possible for us.
I hope each of you gets to spend a quiet few moments alone in front of your tree this Christmas. Turn all the lights out (especially those of you with the eighteen different themes on your front lawns where poor Baby Jesus is smashed and crowded between Frosty, Santa Tigger and Snoopy on a blow up plane-you know who you are!) 😉
Splash the room in colored sparkles of your fondest memories. See the ornaments shine and the tinsel dance. Allow yourself a favorite memory from a Christmas long ago, when every morning was an adventure and dreams were not pushed aside and rushed by. Recall the smell of wood-burning chimneys on an icy-blue Christmas Eve. The sound of snow crunching beneath your feet. The melted wax from candles at midnight services. The anticipation of a child getting up at four in the morning and hoping there are presents under the tree….
There is a sweet peace in every Christmas tree. A true and silent pride. A quiet, unwavering hello. Holding up for you all your life’s memories. Standing there, awaiting you. Gleaming. Saying, “Here! Here is your life. Here, before you!”
Take time to celebrate it. To celebrate you and all who have colored you, filled you with song and eased the roughest edges of you. Hang a new ornament for today. One that you will look back to years from now. One that you will smile over and fondly recall saying, “Yes, that’s what meant hope to me. That’s how I defined good and right and loved and beautiful that year back then.”
My ornament will look a lot like you. This, my heart already knows. It will burst with all the love you have gifted me. My ornament will shine with the smiling faces of you. The wondrous traces of you. In all the places you call home.
And I will hang it where I will see and never forget. Never ever forget….What each of you means to me.
Merry, Merry Christmas to all.