Oh, Christmas Tree

I’m one of those people. You know … the ones who put their Christmas decorations up right after Thanksgiving and, then, leave them in place until sometime in February. I know, I know. People like me tend to annoy and irritate most everyone else. I mean, not all the time. But when it comes to the whole Christmas decoration thing, we’re a pain in the hoo-hah.

I think the right after Thanksgiving thing is pretty common. Most people I know put their trees and decorations up the weekend after Thanksgiving. Growing up, my dad worked what was called a “seven and seven” schedule. This meant he spent seven days living at his work site, and then he was home for seven days. If he was home for Thanksgiving, my family always put up our decorations the weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday. So we would gorge on turkey and count our blessings on Thursday. And by Saturday, we would be out hiking over our property in search of the perfect tree. By Sunday, our tree and house would be all decked out: ornaments, lights, the works. On that first Sunday evening, once all the lights were in place, we would turn all of them on, including the tree. Our house was at the top of a hill, and we had a long, unpaved driveway down to the road in and out of the area where we lived. We would all hike down the driveway just so we could see all of the lights from a distance. Good memories.

My family kept the tree up a little longer than most of my friends’ families. Although it could vary depending on my dad’s work schedule, my parents generally left the tree up for about a week after Christmas. We always had a live tree, which, of course, limited how long we could leave it up. By New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day at the latest, my dad generally had us undecorating and putting everything away. I can’t remember ever ringing in the new year with our decorations in place.

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This year, we were late in putting up our tree. We were busy, and putting up the tree is a lot of work. There are things to be hauled from the garage. There are boxes to be searched. There are lights to be untangled and tested. There is furniture to be moved. Still, we got the tree up and running by the end of the first week in December. We had a beautiful tree this year, if I do say so myself. It was all decked out in colored lights, which gave it a beautifully pastel glow at night. For the past several  years, we’ve used all white lights. We have a fake tree that came pre-lit. I like the white lights, too. But the tree is old and the lights don’t work any longer. In a way, this is great. Because those colored lights were fabulous this year. Really fabulous.

By all rights, we should have taken our tree down weeks ago. Most people I know — especially folks who had real trees — have them down and packed away the day after Christmas. We used a real tree for a few years, and, even then, I couldn’t bring myself to take it down that quickly. Although we had to let it go by the end of the first week in January. Real trees just get too dry and dangerous. And messy.

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Having a fake tree does away with all of that. It doesn’t do away with the mess — at least, not completely. Our tree is old and sheds. A lot. But it’s not likely to dry out and catch on fire. This is a big plus, because it means I can keep the tree up as long as I want. Last year, I think we took our tree down sometime in March. And it didn’t get put away in the garage until April. This is overly long, even for me. But last year was a weird and horrible year. I was too worried about my husband’s heart attack, surgery, and recovery to care much about the tree.

As I sit and type this, my tree is still assembled and decorated. It sits proudly in front of a window on the second floor. I still turn it on every night so I can sit and watch the lights. I still look forward to coming home in the evening and seeing it lit up through the front window of my house. I know Christmas is over. I know I’m “supposed” to take down all the decorations and put everything away and get on with the business of “normal life”. I know it’s unconventional and, maybe, even a little bit weird to still have the tree up and lit. I get it. I really do.

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But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I hate January. I hate this month with a mighty passion and the strength of ten dozen burning suns. It is a sad month for me, one that has always made me feel bittersweet, anxious, and unsettled. Now, one year after my husband’s heart surgery, I have even more terrible memories associated with January. All month, my Facebook memories have been from our time in the hospital or from just before my husband’s heart attack happened. January is gray and chilly and … well, to be honest, it’s more than a little bit boring. It’s also extremely long. Thirty one days … and I feel the true weight of each and every one of them.

The Christmas tree makes me happy. It gives me a little bit of brightness in a world that is locked into the midst of winter. It gives me a little pick-me-up on gray and dreary days that make me think Spring will never come. It helps me get over the bad memories. It’s not like the tree is going to erase those things. But seeing the cheerful lights and the beautiful ornaments helps to smooth out the edges just a little. It’s cheerful.

And so, it shall stay. At least until February. And I will happily remain one of those people. But I did bring in some of my outside lights. I might be one of those people … But I’m not a savage.

 

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The Holiday Sneak

Christmas is a sneaky holiday. It had to be said. It’s one of those holidays where, even though you know it’s coming … Even though  you’ve known this for an entire, freaking YEAR … Even though you’ve been hearing about it for months on the radio and news and advertisements … It still manages to land in your lap before you realize what’s happening. It still manages to make you scramble and rush around to try and get things ready in time for “the big day”. It’s one of those holidays for which one can never quite feel prepared or truly ready, and so we end up just tossing out our best effort and going with what we have at the moment Christmas happens. Well, I guess most of us do that. Okay … so I do that. Every darn year. Maybe I’m the only one. I hope I’m not the only one but … yeah. I might be. My Domestic Goddess abilities are definitely lacking, both in terms of skill and level of enthusiasm.

I think part of it is that Christmas comes with so many unreasonable expectations. It’s a time of year that is fraught with emotion and longing. We have to keep moving forward in life. Always forward. We have to keep living every day and remembering how every day is precious and a beautiful gift. Except for Christmas. On that day, it’s hard to continue moving forward. We look backward, toward memories of our youth, and think about the things we have lost along the way over the course of a year. Or five. Or ten. Or twenty.

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Again, maybe this isn’t something everyone does. Maybe it’s just me. But I find myself approaching each Christmas with a bittersweet longing in my heart. The older I get, the more I think back to the Christmasses of my youth, when my whole family would gather together, and we would all be loud: eating and loving each other and playing rowdy games of dominoes and telling funny stories and laughing. Things felt perfect back then. Of course, they weren’t. Nothing is ever perfect in our lives. This is part of being human. But, I remember how full my heart felt back then. I remember the feeling of love and security that came from having my whole family around me. I remember what it felt like to belong. And I do remember thinking, somewhere deep within my little child-sized heart, how things couldn’t quite be more perfect or more glorious. Even then, as a child, there was a part of me that knew it couldn’t stay this way. Things change. We have to grow up. People leave us, even if we don’t want them to go.

For many years, I have gone to extreme lengths to recreate those childhood memories for myself each year. I’m not sure why. I guess part of it was that I wanted to recapture that warm feeling of completeness and safety. And, perhaps, part of it was that these were the things I knew. These were the things you “did” at Christmas, so it didn’t occur to me to do anything different. Each year, I would exhaust myself trying to get everything “just right”. And, of course, I would always fall short. Memories are sweet and beautiful. You can’t recreate them, not really. You can come close, but something will always be missing. Memories live in our hearts. They can’t come out to live in the real world.

This year, Christmas snuck up on me even more than usual. I love Christmas. I love the holiday spirit and the decorations and the carols and the special movies and the excitement and anticipation. I even love the mad rush to get everything done: tree, cards, decorations, baking, gifts.

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Not this year. This year, I couldn’t get past the fact that our family will be celebrating Christmas for the first time without two of our most beloved members. There is nothing like having to unwillingly say good-bye to make you realize nothing can ever, ever be the same. No matter how sweet and perfect your memories might be, they are just that: memories. They will never be real again. Living so far away from the rest of my family, I hardly ever got to see my aunts. I hadn’t been able to see my eldest aunt for at least a couple of years, because she was very ill and frail. I was lucky enough to see my other aunt, very briefly, last summer, during my annual trip home. It’s silly to miss someone you never saw any more. And yet, I do miss them. So much. Just knowing they were out there in the world somehow made my life better and complete. I can’t explain it well, but I feel set adrift by their deaths.

And so, I couldn’t muster any Christmas enthusiasm this year. I was literally at the last minute getting out my cards and my gifts that had to be mailed. I think my husband mailed them on the very last day possible for delivery before Christmas. I didn’t care about our tree. Or any of the decorations. I filled my daughter’s Advent calendar two weeks after December started. I did manage to sit down and paint it. This was my “big” decorating project for this year, and my daughter loves the results. So I suppose that’s something. I waited until the day my parents were to arrive to do any house cleaning, so that I ended up having to do the mad rush around to get the guest room cleared out and ready for them. I was wrapping gifts right up until the night before Christmas Eve. I only baked one pie. It really has been the year of the Grinch in my Christmas heart.

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But you know what this year has taught me? Christmas is going to happen, whether I choose to participate or not. Things still got done, even if they didn’t happen when I thought they should. The tree is beautiful. The decorations are up and festive. There were presents. There was a Christmas Day “feast”, cooked by my mom and me. We had a lazy, quiet day at home for Christmas: church on Christmas Eve, sleeping in a bit the next morning, presents gathered around the tree, and then my mom and I laughing and talking all afternoon as we cooked together in my kitchen. And my heart was full.

Maybe the memories of my childhood can only live in my heart. Maybe things feel bittersweet and hard sometimes because we have to keep on living, even if we don’t want to do so. Maybe things won’t ever be quite the same as they used to be. But that’s okay. It’s not what I would have chosen, but it’s beautiful in its own way. We will make new memories. We will laugh and love and make new traditions. And those will live in our hearts, too.