O Christmas Tree
When my husband was a child in New York, more than a half-century ago, he would walk downtown with his father to get the Christmas tree — somewhere below 14th Street, trash can fire chasing the chill. They selected a small tree and put it on a bridge table in the apartment, with multicolored lights and a red brick paper skirt suggesting a chimney. A puddle of white fabric with tiny porcelain houses completed the Christmas tableau. The cat ate the tinsel and trailed silver shit ribbons. The tree seemed large, he says, but it couldn’t have been. The child’s eye makes magic.
The idea to drag trees into our houses and tart them up is very old and seems to be pagan in origin. A nod to the solstice and dreams of spring, the evergreen suggested hope in the dark months. There are records of trees decked out with pretzels, paper flowers, dates, and nuts. Some early Christmas trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling. I can’t picture this without imagining absolute chaos, a world upside down — which, at the ass end of this year, seems perfectly apt. Perhaps we should all be hanging trees upside down in our houses, like ladies with dashed hopes and skirts around their ears.
I grew up in rural Maryland and getting the tree was an event. My mother had Christmas stars in her eyes and was fixedly determined to make holiday magic for the four of us. Many batches of cookies, carols for weeks, lights in every window. Layers of raw nerves, a festival of stress. We went to a tree farm and cut one down every year, sometimes riding big wagons drawn by giant regal horses. The after-party included big mugs of hot cocoa and trays of cookies, a nip of something in the nog for the older set. The tree was usually as large as the house would hold, of the fat variety (no bullet trees for us), covered with white twinkle lights and balls of red and gold. My mother, the Christmas fairy, would spray the whole affair with canned snow to give it that “decorated by Disney animals in the woods” look. It was lovely and, until I was tweening and the whole affair seemed like a forced march, the process was magical.
The modern Christmas tree — the one that twinkles and winks with baubles and candy — was born in Germany in, probably, the 16th…