Last year, my mother and I had the brilliant idea of buying a Christmas tree earlier than usual so as to have my friends from Boston help decorate it while they were at our house for Thanksgiving weekend. This is another of those somewhat rare arenas in which I can be very fussy. My mom usually throws ornaments up willy-nilly in her hasty, take-charge fashion. I, on the other hand, contemplate the traditional placement of ornaments in the past as well as the design aesthetics meticulously. My dad prefers the finished product when I do the trimming and so I have been doing it since I was about twelve, or maybe even younger. My parents used to work at the restaurant a lot around Christmas, so I got accustomed to doing it by myself. My brother had very little interest. Or more likely, since he was a smart boy, he probably knew to avoid collaborating with the “Christmas Nazi” as my family used to call me.
Having my Boston friends help last Thanksgiving weekend worked out really well, since it usually takes me about three hours to finish it. With my friends, we wrapped it up in about a half an hour. Of course, one of them slipped a drink in my hand during the process, presumably in an effort to help calm me down.
As an aside, I can tell you from experience that I am not as bad as my friend Rita’s father, John Dwan. He willingly admits that you can find his name next to “anal retentive” in the dictionary. One year, when I stopped by her house around Christmas, I was asked to help string the tree lights, because her father was on crutches at the time. He ended up giving Rita’s little brother and me a small lecture about how stringing lights necessitates one person holding them in a neat “bouquet” and the other stringing them. Too much slack from the bouquet holder would of course cause tangling, so John was regimented about that. He further specified that the strands of lights had to be placed six to eight inches apart. I can still see Rita’s ten year old brother obediently holding his neat little bouquet and following me as I worked. This did not stop John Dwan from following us around and adjusting the lights with one of his crutches…
This year, with our holiday assistants again excited to help with the trimming, my mother went to the local Boy Scouts’ tree sale and simply said: “Give me the biggest tree you have”. She did not even look at it with the netting removed. She just strapped it to her car and was on her way. Well, she didn’t need to look at it. When we un-wrapped it, we could see that it was a plump and full ten foot tree and it smelled amazing. Within an hour we finished trimming it while enjoying peppermint hot chocolate and listening to carols. When it was finished, we sat and admired it. We decided, with its pearl strands and twinkling white lights, that it was the biggest and one of the most beautiful trees the Holden household had ever seen. And then it fell over…
Well, it didn’t happen right away. The girls had left to head back to Boston and the boyfriend and I were out getting a drink. When we returned to the house around 11:00, I walked absent mindedly through the family room and then heard Brendan say “The tree fell down”. And there it was, grotesquely bizarre, like some sort of crime scene. I was in shock. My parents had apparently been sitting on the couch watching the UConn game, when the tree just went down.
The really disheartening part of the image was the pile of broken glass surrounding it. My mom had been so upset that she had gone to bed and said we would survey the damage in the morning. I had much the same reaction and went to bed thinking about the memories potentially destroyed under our once beautiful tree. I knew the following day would be spent miserably finding many holiday memories shattered. With two of us having gone to bed in disgust, I was surprised when I heard the vacuum and walked back into the family room to find my dad and Brendan had put the tree back up again. Only a few ornaments had been destroyed! Miraculously, my mother’s very fragile glass ‘Partridge in a Pear Tree’ ornaments from her childhood had both survived the crash. Only one of the broken ones was really sentimental. It was a clean break though, and we are gluing it back together.
So this year has the distinction of being the only year in which we trimmed the tree twice. My parents were running errands when Brendan and I attacked the re-decoration process in the morning. The lights were now all tangled and the pearls were bound up with them. Somewhere in this detangling process, I looked at Brendan and said: “I’m making an executive decision. Screw the pearls.” So we charged onward and Brendan got to meet my Christmas Nazi persona in full form. He really needed work on his ‘zig-zagging’ and ‘nestling’ techniques, but he is a quick learner.
I think we all learned a lot from the process. The first, and most obvious lesson, is that you have to weigh down a tree stand when a ten foot tree is involved. And the second, (and this one is mostly for me), is that no matter how meticulous you are and how steadfastly you hold onto traditions, some of that might slip away from you in the blink of an eye. Still, the important things will find a way of remaining intact.