Last year, my parents announced they would no longer be putting up a tree at Christmas. Both in their 80s, handing down the ornaments from the attic and dragging the tree from the basement had become too much. I was saddened by the news.
Since I was a baby, there has been a Christmas tree gracing the front window of my parent’s home. My first Christmas photo, adorned in a red dress and sitting awkwardly in a carrier, the small, live evergreen peeks from behind me, it’s large, multicolored lights stealing the show.
Throughout my childhood our trees were purchased from the Knights of Columbus tree lot at either St. Patrick Catholic Church or St. Jude. Although I do recall standing in front of the Otasco one cold evening with my mother ordering my father, “No, not that one. Hold up the one next to it. No, the other one.”
And my father, always expertly and slowing spinning the tree, asking, “Does it look straight? Are there any bare spots?” I thought my father profoundly smart for bringing his work gloves so we didn’t have to wait on the KOC men or young boys to show us the trees, putting us in charge of discovering the perfect tree.
Then, roped or bungeed to the car, we’d drive home to only discover a gaping hole at the top or lower half of the tree, “just face that side to the wall,” or the trunk had a slight crook which would lead to my father taking the tree to the back yard and sawing off a good inch or two. Somehow, the tree that looked so majestically tall under the generator lights of the parking lot always seemed a little short and dumpy once squeezed into the tree stand and partially lit by the table lamps in the living room.
But, I loved our trees. Short, tall, fat, skinny, full, or skimpy. Once decorated, I always enjoyed gazing upon the tree with the lights off, especially on Christmas morning. I recall a Christmas when my brother and I awoke at dawn and we tiptoed into the living room. I flipped the light switch and immediately the room filled with an amber glow, flushing the cheeks of my little brother as he eyed the packages beneath. Once he’d taken stock of the wrapped gifts from Santa, he rushed off to awaken my parents. I just stood in the living room, alone with the tree and that soft light and while I didn’t understand it at the time, I felt an aching in my chest and thought I might begin to cry. Now, looking back, I understand and am familiar with that emotion, the hope and anticipation, the joy and belief in Christmas spirit.
So, not seeing the tree standing in the window as I pulled into their driveway during Christmas was unimaginable to me. I even offered to come over and set up the tree for them, but they were insistent it was time to retire the old artificial tree. A few days before Christmas, I joined my parents for lunch and took photos of the tree, including a few of the handmade ornaments courtesy of me and my siblings. I walked around the tree, touching the ornaments from my childhood as if to hold those Christmas memories once more in my hand. When dad took down the tree shortly after Christmas, I figured the photos would have to serve as a reminder of the Christmas spirit that was.
This year, the week following Thanksgiving, I asked my mom if she would consider a small tabletop tree to set up in the living room, one big enough to hold her favorite and cherished ornaments. I’d decided I could convince them to put up a smaller version of the family tree, one they could easily cover and hide, fully decorated, in the closet until the following year. I offered to buy one I’d seen at Target.
“No, mija. You don’t need to buy a tree for us. Your dad, well, he’s decided to go ahead and put up the tree, again.”
“Yes, he says it’s not time, especially with the little grandkids. They need a tree when they come for Christmas.”
I agreed. I need the tree, too. Still.
On this Christmas Eve, we’ll join my parents for an early Mass, indulge in posolė, and exchange small gifts while seated around the tree. I understand time with the old Christmas tree is limited, just as I recognize each Christmas spent with my parents is precious. Until that time when we are only able gather beneath the branches of Christmas memories and fill the room with the amber glow of Christmases past, I will immerse myself in each moment, each Christmas, and all that is familiar which brings hope, anticipation, and joy to my soul.