First we’d drag the tree in the door, and for a couple of hours Dad and I would pleasantly argue about where to put it, how it fits in the holder, whether it was straight, and if it was truly secure enough to withstand the cats of the house launching themselves into it without the whole thing crashing to the floor. (This is about where the swearing began, which was always punctuated by debilitating laughter.)
That resolved, we arrived at the worst part — the lights. Dad had a collection of Christmas lights, all of them different and each string holding some special meaning to him and him alone. For some reason, they were also always in tremendous disarray when they were removed from their box. Each string was plugged in, untangled, and stretched out in all directions, so the house resembled a blinking minefield. The primary rule of engagement was that the big lights were put on the bottom half of the tree, and the little ones were placed closer to the top. The finer points of these rules existed only in my father’s head, and it had to do with the shapes of the lightbulbs and the cardinal points on a compass. Some bulbs were pinecones, some were train cars, some were flickering candles, and so on. There was a mysterious hierarchy involved that I never fully comprehended. My post was on one side of the tree, my father’s was on the other, and together we would wind the lights–just so–around the tree, for hours, until we reached the top.
Smooth sailing from this point.
Fortification was an absolute requirement. This was usually the point when we rounded up coffee, booze, and cookies, to prepare for what happened next: ornaments.
I believe we had something like 2000 Christmas ornaments, each of them carefully wrapped and boxed. It seems like there should have been no problem putting the little buggers on the tree and getting on with it, but that was not how it was done.
Regardless how many people were involved in the process, each individual ornament was held aloft for review, discussed at length — my dear old friend so-and-so from Uganda gave us that one in 1962. He died last year in an incident involving a motorbike and a cheetah, blah, blah — and then ceremoniously the ornament was placed on a branch. The ornaments came from around the world, from people and places I sometimes knew or remembered, and sometimes did not. This process could take up to three days before we arrived at the grand finale of placing the fuzzy angel on the top.
Supposedly we alternated years for that honor, but somehow nobody could ever remember who did it last. I suspect that my dad didn’t want to tell me I was too short to manage it, so all the confusion was to disguise that fact. I don’t recall it ever being my turn putting the angel on, now that I think about it.
- The last tree we did together. He died the following summer.
The holiday season is a solitary endeavor for me now. In spite of that, and although I haven’t felt much holiday spirit since my dad died, 16 December is the day I try hardest to find some. At the very least, I’ll fortify with holiday spirits.
And every year, I always have a Christmas tree. I swear continuously (consider this a sort of ritual chanting) as I unravel all the weird strings of lights I inherited from my dad. I remind myself of the origins of every ornament on it. I have added some new ones. Some older ones have not survived. It continues to evolve.
Much like life.