I have a tradition of putting up the tree on Thanksgiving weekend. For some people that’s very early. But then, I know (and am related in some cases) to people who never take their trees down. Anyway, the tradition started when I was in the third grade in grammar school. Before that Dad would drag us out into the woods somewhere to pick a tree and cut down. As far as I know he never had a permit or got permission from anyone. The one or two times Mom or Grandpa or someone would ask, he would insist we’d gone out on Bureau of Land Management property, therefore it all belongs to the public1.
Anyway, third grade and fourth grade were the years we moved several times during the same school year. Of the ten elementary schools I attended, five of them where those two grades alone2. Because of the packing, unpacking, moving, and so forth—and while Dad’s job often indicated within a certain window how long we would be in one place, the exact date we’d need to move wasn’t always certain—Dad agreed to let Mom buy an artificial tree in November because we might have to move in the middle of the holiday season. That year was also the first year that we didn’t drive back to my paternal grandparents’ place for Thanksgiving.
I think that at least half the reason Mom decided to set up the tree the day after Thanksgiving was because with deep snow and temps well below zero Farenheit, being trapped in our small house with my sister and I for three days was going to be a nightmare if she didn’t come up with something to keep us occupied for a decent amount of time.
The tree was only four feet tall—short enough that Mom could set it up on top of the console stereo. It still loomed over the room, but there wasn’t enough tree to hold all of the ornaments we owned. This made deciding what to put on where a major undertaking, with more than a little bit of arguing3 between my sister and I. If I’m right about why Mom decided to set up the tree that day, I think her plan backfired.
Because here’s the really funny thing: Both that year and the next, about three weeks before Christmas, we had to pack up everything—including undecorating the tree and boxing it back up—and move. In third grade, we moved from Kimball, Nebraska to Opal, Wyoming. In fourth grade the move was from Ft. Morgan, Colorado to Roosevelt, Utah.4
Anyway, the upshot is that for the rest of my childhood, Christmases were celebrated with that same artificial tree. The tree didn’t get retired until I was in my early twenties, after Mom remarried and moved to Arizona with her new husband, while I, still trying to save up money to transfer from community college to university, moved in with my paternal grandparents. As an adult, I’ve bought cut trees for Christmas twice, but otherwise have always had an artificial tree6. Back in 2000 or 2001 Michael and I bought a new 7-foot tall “pencil pine” tree. Unlike other trees we’d had, the body of the tree is very narrow, so it’s easy to fit into a small room, but still tall enough to create the big tree effect, and it holds a lot of ornaments. A couple years ago while we were setting it up, Michael pointed out how some of the branches had lost enough plastic needles to looks scraggly, and some branches were awfully loose. So we used it one more year, and then in an after Christmas sale we bought another, similar tree.
I hung up Christmas lights out on the veranda in the afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving. And then I unboxed our Christmas tree and hauled out the boxes of ornaments. Which is a much smaller collection than we used to own7. The first discovery was that while the tree doesn’t quite touch the ceiling, the two glass spire-style toppers we kept won’t fit atop the tree because of the slightly lower ceiling at this apartment than the old. However, the third topper we kept8, which is a teddy bear dressed as Santa, just barely fit. He is literally touching the ceiling, but he fits!
I got the lights on, which always takes a while, because I’ll string them on, decide they are uneven, unwind them, try again, et cetera. I’ll get myself very dizzy at least once along the way. Then I put a few ornaments on. But I was also doing laundry, and Michael talked me into going on a walk with him at one point, so by bedtime I had started on the tree, but hadn’t finished.
Saturday morning I resumed. This is the first year since 1997 that I didn’t have some kind of theme for the tree. Doing a different color scheme and theme every year is only part of the reason we owned more christmas decorations than any eight normal households could possibly use. And because I got rid of so many, I was feeling an urge to fit as much as possible of what remained on the tree. But I still wanted it to look non-random? Which wasn’t really working.
So… I was having a panic as I hung ornaments because I couldn’t find my Great-grandma’s ornaments. Great-grandma bought a box of mixed-color ornaments on sale in 19579. Great-grandma used them on a little artificial tree at her house until Great-grandpa died in 1974, at which point she moved to the coast to live with Grandma. Great-grandma died about six months after Great-grandpa. The ornaments then spent 30-ish years sitting in the storage shed at Grandma’s house. Apparently Grandma used them only once after Great-grandma died, then boxed them up. So after Grandma died, Mom found them in the shed. When she sent me a picture, I gasped, because even though I hadn’t seen them since I was 13 years old, I immediately recognized them.
Mom split them up. She kept three, then my sister, one cousin who expressed interest, and I got three each. I have put them on my own tree every year, regardless of the theme of the year. So when I couldn’t find them, I was freaking out.
I was afraid I had accidentally mixed them up with others and taken them to Value Village.
I was getting more and more frantic while going through the boxes. By the time my husband woke up I must have been really bad, because moments after coming into the room, he asked, “Do you need to sit down for a minute?”
As I told him what was wrong, I pointed at the open boxes lined up that I had been taking ornaments from. I paused.
There were only seven file-box sized boxes. “Wait! I distinctly remember figuring out that I could fit eight boxes in the closet before I started purging,” I said. I grabbed a flashlight and went back to the walk-in closet. Yes, hiding under the coats was an eighth box. Which of course had Great-grandma’s ornaments. It also contained a few other special ornaments that I had thought we kept, but that I hadn’t been able to find.
Eventually on Saturday evening we declared the tree finished and I put the boxes of unused ornaments back in the closet.
That wasn’t all of the decorating. Partway through Saturday I was feeling a bit of cabin fever. I had unpacked some non-tree decorations and decided we needed a table runner to go with the dark red table cloth. Especially if I was going to put another of Great-grandma’s old decorations (her plastic Santa, sleigh, and reindeer centerpiece) out. And that led to the acquisition of an outdoor decoration that is another story all its own. But I should save that for later, as this post is incredibly long, already.
We have the tree up now. It doesn’t have an official theme, but as I was picking ornaments out, I realized I was picking mostly red, green, gold, and white ornaments. Michael noted that there was something of an arctic theme, since I started by putting all the C. Alan Johnson ornaments on first (we hadn’t used any of those since the Pole-to-Pole tree a few years ago), along with polar bears, seals, and white owls. Of course, there are also three penguins, so we could think of this as a sequel to Pole-to-Pole. I don’t think I will. I’m perfectly okay with it just being the ornaments I decided to use this year, no theme. It’s just our tree—our Christmas/Solstice tree.
1. Which prompted Grandpa to say, “Which is why you’re supposed to get a permit.”
2. Also five different states.
3. And there was some crying at at least one point.
4. And if you’re curious: we lived in Opal5 for only about two months, then had to pack up and follow Dad’s oil rig out to Cheyenne Well, Colorado, very close to the Kansas border. In June we moved Healy, Kansas, and we literally were still unpacking when the job shifted to Fort Morgan, and we had to move back to Colorado.
5. Which is pronounced by the residents as “oh, PAL” rather than the way most folks pronounce the gemstone it is named after.
6. Among other advantages of artificial trees are they don’t set off horrible hay fever attacks for me during the one time of the year that it is usually cold enough in the northwest that I’m not dealing with pollen or spores from outside.
7. Achievement unlocked: No Shuttling Weekend! (And we can haz library?), where among other things I hauled three big Subaru loads of Christmas decorations to Value Village.
8. A subset of our old decorations was a collection that was started by my late husband, Ray, which we called The Tacky Tree Topper collection: five or six different kinds of vary garish stars and two different illuminated plastic wreaths. Plus we had those glass spire toppers in just about every color scheme we’ve ever done (purple, red, green, blue, three different pinks, gold, silver…). Then there were the not-tacky stars (one of was bronze, one was silver and white), a thing that looked like a spray of gold glitter… four or five Sants (one with a purple robe, one with a red, one with a green, one with an ice blue… oh, and a burgundy robed one!)… and so on.
9. We know because she kept the box and it had the receipt inside it, I kid you not.