Christmas Trees, Colored Lights, and Not Being an Asshole Anymore
When I was young, my dad took great pride in hauling his family out, saw in hand, on the coldest day of the year to date (WITHOUT FAIL) to a Christmas tree farm. We would spend what felt like an eternity freezing our asses off as we followed my father, the modern Meriwether Lewis of merriness, as he stalked about the farm looking for the *perfect* tree.
What followed can be easily pictured if one remembers the scene in A Christmas Story where the father wrestles with the ancient heating system. "Some men painted in oils, others worked in pastels. My old man wove a rich tapestry of profanity that still hangs over Lake Michigan to this day..." That my mother did not threaten divorce once during these attempts to wrestle a tree atop a 1991 Chrysler minivan is a testament to her character.
My parent's tree was always a hodge-podge of ornaments collected from travel and family, an explosion of color, each ornament having a story. So many, in fact, that decorating the tree used to take two or more hours and involve no fewer than three fights. Underneath it all, however, the tree HAD to have colored lights. Colored lights are what make it a Christmas tree. This point was nonnegotiable and, truly, wasn't an issue until I became a teenager and started to develop opinions about design and aesthetics.
I also became an asshole, as teenagers are wont to do.
I ridiculed him for the outlandish tree, comparing it to the trees in my friends' houses, which were color coordinated and curated, with white lights and elegant ribbons and ornaments that all matched on a theme. All I wanted were white lights. Was that too much to ask?
If you knew my dad at all, it will come as no surprise to you that he listened patiently and thoughtfully as I stated my case and then kindly and gently told me to fuck right off. When I was grown, I could have whatever the hell kind of tree I wanted. But any tree under his roof would always have colored lights.
My dad is dead and I haven't put up my own tree since his passing. I've helped to put up my mother's these past three years and it is, as ever, a cacophony of color and memory that is equal parts comforting and excruciating to assemble. Who is going to hang the Smoked Trout ornament (my father's)? Or the penguin with a martini glass? (Again, dad's.) Who is going to tell me that I didn't have enough lights on the damn thing or instruct me which branches needed better fluffing?
And who is going to put up the star? That ancient, ANCIENT blue acrylic topper that once belonged to my dad's grandfather, a man I never met but felt I knew just the same? Me, I suppose, as the one member of the family gifted with anything resembling height or balance.
But that's not my job. The star, the penguin, the smoked trout - those are my dad's jobs. And yet he is not here.
My daughter is two and hasn't quite worked out that Santa isn't Elmo's daddy and that Rudolph isn't one of the backyard deer that eat our trees. But my husband and I decided that we would be putting up our own tree again this year. For our daughter. For my dad.
We pulled it out of the garage and I set to work stringing the tree with lights - WHITE LIGHTS.
If you know me at all, it will come as no surprise that as soon as I plugged the last strand in and took a step back to admire my handiwork, I fucking hated it. The lights were sterile, boring, and, worst of all, made our tree look like a real asshole, something which I had not considered possible for a tree.
He was right. As he was so often. I was wrong, as I so often wish I could admit to him now that it's too late. I was wrong about so many things. For example, sardines and yellow mustard on a saltine ARE a sublime afternoon snack no matter how much I argued the contrary. Alcohol should not taste like candy. Every house should have a 16 leg limit where pets are concerned and NEVER is a rodent a good idea for a child under 10. What you wear doesn't matter even a tenth as much as what you say. And, while we're on the subject, taking a video of your children descending the stairs on Christmas morning even when they are both in their twenties is not stupid and overly sentimental, no matter how much I once insisted it was.
And, perhaps above all else, our Christmas trees should have colored lights.
Last night, I went to Lowe's and bought enough colored lights for my seven-foot tree to be seen from space. I ripped the white lights away and replaced them. I stood back and felt tears burning in my eyes. My two-year-old daughter approached, her face awash in the brightness, and said, "Mama, it's a rainbow." And so it is.
I see you, Dad. I always see you, but during this season, your vibrant tapestry of profanity and Christmas cheer is still very visible as it blankets my part of the world. May it always.