In the 1950s the Christmas tree was the one iconic item the whole season was built around, or it was in our house. My parents spent a lot of time picking out the perfect tree from the selection available while I stood around freezing. We are talking Kansas and pine trees had to be trucked in. By the time the trees arrived weeks before the holiday they were far from fresh and none could be considered perfect. After finding one that hadn’t lost most of its needles in transit and didn’t have a trunk shaped like a pretzel my parents would grump about the price and eventually toss it on top of the car, rope it on and lug the pitiful thing home.
Dad would wrestle the tree to the basement with Mom armed with a broom and a dust pan in hot pursuit. He’d cut off a couple inches of the trunk under Mom’s watchful gaze and unhelpful supervision. The tree would be sat in a bucket of water and leaned against the basement wall. The poor dead thing would sit over night trying to absorb water.
The revived tree would be hauled upstairs to the living room and screwed into a metal holder. Mom would complain if the tree trunk were not straight. Dad would loosen a bolt, push the trunk a bit to the left or to the right. Mom would walk around it grumbling. I timed it one year and that process usually took about twenty minutes.
Then Mom would complain about a branch that sagged. Dad was prepared for that. He would take thin wire and use it to wire the offending branch to the trunk. There was always a layer of lost pine needles under the tree by the time the tree’s makeover was finished. All this was followed by more sweeping and fussing by Mom.
Decorating the tree was another battle between my parents. The strings of lights all had to be tested before attaching the strings to the tree. And according to Mom you could not have two bulbs of the same color next to each other on the same string of lights. Dad would glare because he’d have to change some of the bulbs around and at times the ones he had just changed would burn out before getting on the tree.
I’d sit silent on the couch trying to be as invisible as possible. I always wanted to say that it didn’t matter to me if there were blue bulbs next to each other or not. All I wanted them to do was get it done so I could go back to my room and read.
With the lights were on the tree the next step was to add the strings of glass beads. They had to be evenly hung on the tree off of the tips of the branches. This process demanded more fussing and more growling. Dad would get the strings situated and Mom would grump and run over to the tree to change things. There were a few times I expected Dad to decorate Mom with lights and sparkly glass bead strings.
The ornament at the top of the tree was next. We had a plastic star with a bulb in it for years. It never sat right and always leaned. Later on it was replaced with a delicate glass spire. To put it on top of the tree involved the step ladder and branch trimmer. Dad usually had to trim some of the top branches to get the ornament on right. It never sat straight enough to please my Mother. Dad would stay up on the ladder until she was finally pleased.
The other ornaments were a collection that had been accumulated over the years. My parents had no extra money for decorations on my first Christmas so they made ornaments from the foil tops off of milk bottles. They flattened them out, cut them into squares and taped the pieces together to form cubes. Those were hung by a corner and the silver, red and blue foil caught the light well. They collected prettier glass and plastic ornaments in later years. I was allowed to put some ornaments on the tree but Mom would tell me where it should go. I used to let my kids put them anywhere they wanted. Tinsel wasn’t hung piece by piece, it was flung by the handfuls. New tinsel was bought every year.
This was after my parents had replaced tinsel with plastic glow in the dark icicles. Those were the things kids nightmares are made of. Nothing worse than getting up in the middle of the night, going into the living room and seeing a ghastly bluish glow coming from the Christmas tree. They were much better in a way. I didn’t have to help take the tinsel off the tree after the holidays. Mom insisted we save and reuse every tiny piece of tinsel.
The year my parents put up this tree the neighbors across the street put up an aluminum tree. It looked like someone had shredded a pile of aluminum foil rolls and then stuck them all together. The neighbors hung round silver glass ornaments on it and sat it in their picture window with fake snow under it. That evening they turned on a rotating wheel that had different colors of cellophane and a strong light behind it. The silver tree would change from red, to blue to green to yellow to silver and back again. It was modern and the owners of the tree were quite pleased. Dad would cuss every time he looked out the window after sundown.
In later years Mom finally bought a fake Christmas tree. Fake is as fake does. It didn’t look right, it didn’t smell right, it didn’t feel right and it made things entirely too easy. Holidays don’t need to be perfect and neither do the decorations. Memories are built out of the wonderful imperfections.