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Oh, Tannenbaum

December 16, 2011

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. I wanted my students to love it as much as I did; I sometimes wonder how successful I was. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!”  I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed Christmas Eve filled with all the Santa expectations of American childhood. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. Later, the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. After working as a part-time seasonal janitor, my father had gotten our tree from a local school. It had been used in the classroom but was discarded when winter vacation began. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.

However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes, then punches, and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to ruin Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand this and every year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my brain. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory is perhaps the most precious gift of my Christmases.

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