My origin story begins on Christmas Eve. My parents met on Dec. 24 on a southbound train. When they got married a decade later, it was in late January, but neither could remember which day. They always considered Christmas Eve their anniversary.
In the lead-up to Christmas Eve every year, our house filled with excitement. The faces of my parents softened; they laughed more. That night, we dressed up and went over to my grandparent’s house for cocktails and dinner.
I asked my mother once if we could get silver tinsel icicles, having seen them at a friend’s house. The answer was a firm no.
The cousins I saw only once a year were there. My aunt made the same shrimp hors d’oeuvre and served it with the same crackers. My uncle always wore a tie to carve the turkey. The tree twinkled with colored lights and ornaments. It felt like the party scene of “The Nutcracker.”
I always loved Christmas trees, and there’s nothing like the smell of a freshly cut evergreen to evoke those memories. Two miles down the road, we had the same kind of tree twinkling away at our own house. I remember unpacking the ornaments as a child and greeting them like old friends. We had fancy ones people gave as gifts, and handmade ones we made in school.
I asked my mother once if we could get silver tinsel icicles, having seen them at a friend’s house. The answer was a firm no. I recall some disparaging remark about them getting all over everything.
When my brother had kids, we started driving to his house on Christmas Eve to be with them. I was able, eventually, to forgive my sister-in-law for using small white lights on their tree. Marriage is a compromise: I love every other thing about her, and she makes an excellent Christmas breakfast. Their house feels very Sugar Plum Fairy.
Imagine then, if you will, my face when my newish husband came in the door of our house one day in 2003 and announced he’d bought a Christmas tree. The tree he presented was made of silver tinsel. In a box. That he bought at Urban Outfitters. For $19.99.
He’d bought a fake tree.
There seems to be a mistake, I thought, about whom, exactly, I have married. He’s a fake tree person?
I remember reading that Joan Didion wanted to marry John Gregory Dunne after she visited his family’s house and found a closet full of pressed organdy tablecloths. She knew these were her people.
This was the opposite of that.
Obviously, the marriage was doomed. I would use the fake tree as Exhibit A in the court wrangling over our inevitable divorce.
However, it’s bad manners to ask for a divorce during the holidays. My plan was to survive Christmas with this person I didn’t know and try to be as civil as possible. I could call a lawyer in January.
Oblivious, my soon-to-be-ex-husband chattered with excitement about the tree.
“Isn’t it cool?” he asked. “It’s so ՚70s! I love it.”
I smiled thinly.
“This way, we don’t murder a tree,” he added.
Oh, right, I thought. I tell myself I care about the environment … until preserving it inconveniences my delicate sensibilities.
I made a couple of other observations about myself that Christmas.
First: I am an awful snob. I believe there are two kinds of people, real vs. fake tree, and real tree people are superior.
Second: I didn’t get bronchitis for the first Christmas in memory. I am allergic to many trees, and these allergies always manifest as a terrible, hacking cough every December. Could it be possible that having an evergreen in the house was the cause? The answer was yes. I haven’t been sick at Christmas since.
January rolled around and I decided to forget the divorce.
I once had a boyfriend who was a real tree person. I remember meeting his parents and knowing they were my kind of people. We read the same books, talked about Important Things and were quite convinced the state of the world was our responsibility to fix.
Awful, dreadful snobs. And that boyfriend, so like me, was also a magician. He disappeared with alarming frequency.
My husband hasn’t disappeared once in 26 years. I can get over the tree.
My third observation: I’m married to past traditions as if they came down to Moses on tablets. It has taken me a lifetime to discover that clinging to the past doesn’t serve me. I’m a slow learner.
The holidays were a happy time in childhood. But every day is not Christmas, and Ma in her kerchief and Pa in his cap were not my everyday reality. My parents divorced, then my father died.
I tried to keep those early Christmases in amber. I was protecting them to prove we’d once been happy. How could a fake tree prop up those memories?
It couldn’t. But it could give me something else just as meaningful.
As my stepsons got older, they began to travel with us. One year, we started hanging the keychains we bought on vacations.
We have so many keychains now we put on very few other ornaments. When we hang one, we remember that time we went to Hawaii or Paris or Vegas together. If any of us go anywhere during the year, we happily show off a new keychain before hanging it.
We find the craziest keychains we can. Somehow, I wound up with one that is shaped like Gorbachev’s head, complete with a birthmark. That’s my personal favorite.
The little boys are now men. At some point in December, they and their partners usually come over. We decorate the silver tree and howl with laughter. I make dinner and afterward we exchange presents.
I no longer must protect every happy memory by recreating them. We have plenty.
So much misery is created in the holidays by expectations that things stay exactly the same.
So my last observation is this: Traditions are not just what we do, or eat, or how we decorate. Traditions tell us who we are and what our family values. My family values love without obligation, and choice.
So much misery is created in the holidays by expectations that things stay exactly the same. So after decorating the tree, my husband and I release our adult children into the wilderness of the holidays, free to go anywhere they want. The greatest gift we give them is choice.
Imagine me giving up a family like that because of the faux pas of a faux tree.
My therapist, who should be making $10,000 an hour, said to me one day: “Observe, don’t judge.”
Today I observe my pretty silver tree, twinkling with many colors. It’s particularly beautiful, especially when Gorbachev’s bald head catches the light.
But my mother was right. There’s tinsel all over the place.