The Crash of the Christmas Tree: Lessons Learned

How many hump days can you have in one week?  The afternoon before last week’s hump day, this happened. I hadn’t put any hand-painted glass balls on yet. I only lost two ornaments. One was a 3D glass lace heart. 25 years old. The anger over the flipping tree going over overshadowed any soppy nostalgia over the broken glass scattered in the carpet and across the hardwood floor.

To answer a couple questions… We have no pets. No one was near the tree. Will and Liam were upstairs in their bedrooms. I was in the kitchen when I heard it go. We bought a crooked tree. The trunk was straight as an arrow in the tree stand. Last Sunday when we put it up, I did notice the top leaning a bit forward but didn’t think it was a big deal. Not big enough to send the engineer back under there. Should have sent the engineer in for a design change before it heaved over.

We got it up and after much tweaking decided that it was well and truly crooked and that the best option was to turn it so it leaned into the corner. Yes, the back of the tree become the front. The back which had been facing the window and which no one would see. Where those tacky ornaments rest, the ones I’m not quite sure of their origin, but feel the need to hang on to them. It took a full 24 hours for me to step up to the tree and to re-decorate it. I mulled over the idea of leaving it as it was. But… well, you know what the back of a Christmas tree looks like. Aunt Mable’s crocheted string of beads that had been roped like garland back and forth the true front were just barely showing on one side of the tree. Sheer evidence of an “oops.”

I threw a picture of the fallen tree onto Facebook. That post became a support group for those of us who’ve had this most unfortunate experience. Two people lost one the weekend before ours went over. One mom’s went over three times in one day – once landing on her littlest boy! She has four boys; he wasn’t injured, probably pretty used to being on the bottom of a pile.

The Christmas tree. What a lovely tradition in my Normal Rockwell frame of mind. (That slip must stay! A typo is worth a thousand truths.) And to me, the decorating is as big a part of tradition as gazing googly-eyed at the completed twinkly tree. Despite my want for “a Christmas tree tradition,” this year’s putting-up-the-tree has pushed me to re-think what should be involved in this tradition. What particularly should this tradition look like for my family? For a multitude of reasons, I realized I have been defining this tradition step-by-step, beginning to end, in my mind and hoping the implementation will follow smoothly when adding a man, a young boy, and a male teenager to the mix. Seriously, what the hell am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking.

When my sons have families of their own, I want them to be involved in the making of traditions and to know that there is value in it – for themselves and for their loved ones. Traditions take more than one person implementing a plan; it starts there but depends on buy-in, albeit I now realize various degrees of buy-in.

Bill is allergic to the poke of the pine needles and the sap and the bark. So to put the tree up the first time – and the second time, he hauled out his leather gloves to wrestle with the heavy end. To place ornaments on what must be to him a giant, poisonous pin cushion, he would be wearing leather gloves for ages.

When the thing went over, only the boys were home with me. I called Will down to help me pull it upright. He didn’t want to touch it; he’s not keen on the prickly needles. Will gingerly picked up the top while I reached in bare-handed and hugged the tree to my chest to get it to stand to attention. He balanced it while I examined the tree stand. At that point we had not yet determined it was a crooked tree. All we could do was lean it into a corner and shove a large, hardback cover book of “Curious George” under one side of the tree stand so it wouldn’t topple again and wait for Bill to get home. My thoughts were dark as I struggled unsuccessfully to fix it: I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. If Bill kicks off before me, so goes my tree stabilizer.

With the repair round of decorating looming, I considered for a moment the first round. I had removed special ornaments from their boxes, so when the boys helped decorate they didn’t need to mess with unpacking ornaments, which is my least favorite part of decorating. Bill and Will stayed within sight of the tree in the kitchen, eyes on projects on the kitchen counter, avoiding eye contact. Avoiding decorating the tree. Liam sat on a chair three feet from me and perhaps put two or three ornaments on; then chatted away as I decorated. I invited him to join in again, and his reply was an eye opener. Looking out of the corner of his eye with a devilish self-protecting smile, he said, “I’m providing charisma to the tree decorating!” Liam also hates anything poky, let alone sappy and sticky.

I’ll be damned. I’m the only one that loves muscling the tree without gloves, poking lights into the interior branches so the whole thing glows. I’m the only one who goes skipping down memory lane with each ornament hung. I’m the only one that enjoys the push back of the tree as I lean into it standing on a step stool to put the star on top.

I’m not saying the three wise men in my house don’t enjoy the memories, but perhaps not all in one sitting. Maybe occasionally walking by the tree they see an ornament that reminds them of the drive to South Dakota with their aunt, two cousins, Grandpa and Grandma, and no electronics. They are happy with one memory at a time. I need full memory-immersion for my putting-up-the-tree experience to be complete.

Perhaps after its set up, some other traditions will take hold. It must be told that string of beads represents more than Aunt Mable, but also Will and Liam’s Great-Grandma Frances and her spunky sisters: Aunt Mina, the eldest and calmest. Aunt Lucie, the baby and full of laughs. Aunt Margaret, the snoopy one who opened closed doors when visiting her sisters – and their families. Aunt Mable, the round one and the ally to Great-Grandma Frances. Those two would share an eyeball roll as Aunt Mable would say, “Lock the doors, Margaret is on her way over.” That’s what happens to me when I string those beads across the tree.

Ye gads. I certainly cannot convey the meaning behind all ornaments in one putting-up-the-tree sitting.

So, down to its skinniest form, what is my expectation of setting up this dead tree in my house? It must be real – dead but real. It must have ornaments that bring back memories. It must have a star. It must have at least 600 white lights. It must have candy canes. It must be lit from sun up to sun down. Ideally, it will be lit when the kids come down in the morning and still lit as they go off to bed.

And what are my basic needs during the setting up of the tree? Help lodging it into the tree base and spinning it until I detect the front the front of the tree. Help picking it up if it falls over. And, a little bit of charisma would be mighty helpful.