The centerpiece of Christmas for me has always been the tree. That’s as true today as when I was a kid. That one fact, however, is probably the only thing that hasn’t changed about our Christmas trees. Each year it continues to evolve.
Don’t be alarmed; we haven’t gone to an artificial tree. Not yet. Carole and I have vowed always to have a real Christmas tree. But we realize how much longer it now takes to decorate that real tree: days, rather than hours. We look at our neighbors’ artificial trees, which were put up in 10 minutes, and they’re beautiful, vibrant, perfectly shaped trees that look like they were just cut down this morning in the Forest of Perfect Trees.
Those trees look like they give off the sweet aroma of pine. The sad fact is our real tree doesn’t emit the aroma I remember as a kid. That’s possibly because I’m losing my sense of smell. Or perhaps it’s been three months since our tree left its forest home, and it is just aroma’d out by the time it reaches our living room. Whatever the case, my old rationale – a real tree smells like a real tree – isn’t true anymore.
My mom would buy the tree on December 23rd for $2 or $3, instead of the $10 we would have paid two weeks earlier. The tree we brought home was neither shapely nor tall, and needles fell off with every move. When “Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired in 1965, I absolutely recognized the tree Charlie Brown picked out. All it needed was a little love, which Mom – the Queen of Christmas – always provided.
The Christmas trees of my childhood looked the same year after year: colored lights; shiny, easily-shattered glass ball ornaments; tinsel placed one strand at a time on the branches (it took forever); and, l’m embarrassed to say, fake snow we sprayed from an aerosol can. (History will show that global warming began in December of 1953 in the Mitcheners’ living room.)
Today, only two of those decorative elements from my youth remain: the C7 colored lights, and a few of those bright, not-so-shiny-anymore balls, the ones that survived a 10-year-old trying to hang them quickly so he could go out and play.
The most important change in our modern tree is the ornaments. Most of our ornaments are souvenirs that call up meaningful memories: a friend, a story, a gift, a family trip, a favorite artist or movie. Probably like your family Christmas tree, ours serves as a nostalgic family album that we re-experience once a year. When our son and figlia-in-law come home for Christmas, they always spend time looking at the memories on the tree.
- Homemade ornaments (made by very young Erin and Matt)
- A fork (souvenir from North Fork, Long Island)
- Tequila cup (given to guests at a memorable wedding parade in Queretaro, Mexico)
- A pair of bright red cardinals (from St. Louis friends)
- Red chili pepper (the time Matt and his best friend made a serious mistake turning Chinese take-out into a contest)
- Political campaign buttons
- A large, heavy angel (my brother’s gift to me for being his best man) that weighs as much as this year’s tree
- And many other souvenirs from 170 years of life: tennis, Cubs/Bears/Bulls, movies, student gifts, Little League baseball, music, Penn State, Sicily, NYU, St. Louis, Chicago, and much more.
A big change this year was going from incandescent to LED lights. (LED, I just learned in a family Trivial Pursuit game, stands for light emitting diode. Impress your friends with that factoid; it’s my gift to you.) It’s weird to leave the tree lights on all day, and then touch the not-even-warm bulbs. We are told that 20 years from now, our son’s family will be able to use the same strands with the same bulbs, if they so choose.
And they’ll have plenty of ornaments to choose from, as well. Maybe it will remind them that no matter what’s going on in their chaotic world of 2039, there are some important things that haven’t changed from when they were young.
A belated Merry Christmas and happy 2020 from this old guy’s family to yours.
Charlie Brown (You can skip the ad at the beginning… another Christmas present.)