I'm always excited when the Christmas tree goes up. Just the simple act of plugging in the lights and determining which ornaments to use gives me an aura of serenity that lasts for days, even if the tree has to be raised three feet above the ground so the cat won't eat the needles. I find any excuse to sit in the living room throughout the holiday season so I can be near the tree. Luckily, I work on a laptop so that means I don't have to move my entire office.
Why is the tree so important to me? It represents the now, a promise of the future, and a gateway to remembering Christmases past.
We had so many different types of trees back then, it was hard to keep them all straight. The live blue spruce that was in the living room for months still grows outside our house today. One year, I created an artsy and carefully constructed tree out of wrapping paper tubes and hangers. These and other permutations of the traditional Christmas tree were part of every winter season.
While some put up their trees right after Thanksgiving, and took it down before New Year's, we never did. No matter what type of tree we had, we liked putting it a week or so before Christmas and keeping it up until Twelfth Night, which is my birthday. My housemate and I still do it that way.
There was a division of labor at Christmas. My mother and Yiayia were responsible for baking. In the weeks before the holidays, they'd begin making such a wide range of treats that the dining room table was covered in pans and storage containers. They made baklava, quick breads, galatobouriko, tarts, finikia, muffins, yeast rolls, and so many different kinds of pies, cakes, and cookies, that we could have started our own bakery.
My uncle Mike and I had one job during their baking frenzy. It was simple one.
Get the Christmas tree.
From the time I was 6 to 11 years old, Mike and I went forth with my mother's admonition, "Get a nice, straight tree!" ringing in our ears. Every year Mike would promise, filled with good intentions, that we'd bring back the perfect tree.
And every year he failed.
In my defense, I totally blame A Charlie Brown Christmas. I usually spotted that tree. You know the one, the spindly, mangy, crooked tree, with a middle trunk that resembled a winding river, and its needles falling softly, swishing, and surrounding the trunk in a bed of slightly browning pine. Despite my uncle, the tree salesperson, and casual onlookers trying to shift my focus to another tree, I'd insist, with tears in my eyes, that we had to take that tree because, "I feel sorry for it!"
Reluctantly, my uncle would purchase the tree, and off we'd go to meet with my mother's disapproval. Yiayia thought it was hilarious that I could manipulate my uncle into awful trees. Although she told me every year that she also felt sorry for the tree. We did our best to make each one as lovely as a Spartan on his way to battle dressed in his finest.
One year, we actually had to get another tree, since by Christmas Eve the first tree was bald. We never heard the last of that fiasco. Whenever I screwed up after that, my mother brought up the "Year of Two Trees." After a while, she'd just say "YTT," and I'd cringe. Until the day she died, "YTT" was a signal that I had allowed sentiment instead of logic to lead me in the wrong decision.
I know that we have Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Great Britain to thank for introducing the concept of the modern decorated Christmas tree to us. The Romans gave us the concept of gift giving. However, bringing in pine boughs, Yule logs, and other outdoor greenery is an ancient tradition that provided a magical symbolism of sun return or solstice that preceded Christianity, especially in Northern Europe, where the nights were exceptionally long and the days lengthening told them that spring would eventually come.
For me, though, the tree always reminds me of carols, and tree decorating parties, and large Christmas dinners with family and friends gathered in our house. There were years when it was so crowded, it was standing room only, and the tree -- usually the scrawny one -- was in danger of being trampled into oblivion, just a memory of falling pine needles and crashing ornaments.
Time shifts and priorities change. As a single, childless woman, I'm not included in many family-oriented activities. That's okay though, I still succumb to the magic and the belief that for a short time each year, we are a little nicer, a bit gentler, and maybe it's just an illusion, but more of our better selves.
I refuse to get uptight when bloviating buffoons complain that Starbucks cups don't have snowflakes. (Because, you know, they have a lot of snow in Bethlehem, right?) I don't accede to the crass commercialization that demands nearly killing ourselves the day after Thanksgiving in search of the elusive sale item. I won't engage in petty bickering as to the correct greeting for the season. No, they are not going to dampen my holiday spirits.
As I sit in this darkened room, only the tree and the laptop glowing, I find myself missing those old days. Yiayia would sit with me by the light of the tree as my mom read Dicken's Christmas Carol, and Uncle Mike would make up tales of the tree's life in the forest before it came home to our house. Then we'd sing carols before I went off to bed. It was a great lead up to the holiday, and even now, the memory warms me.
I revel in the present, and anticipate and am thankful for good friends' invitation to a Christmas brunch and the family get together on Christmas Eve.
And the ghost of Christmas future? I look forward to a joyous year that will culminate next year with a new tree. As I said, the serenity of the season, as typified in the lighting of the tree, overcomes me.
So, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and above all else, Happy Holidays. Oh, and a joyous and fun New Year.
Now I am going to go and bask beneath the glow of my Christmas tree.