Christmas Edition: There are Christmas Trees and there are Christmas Trees

As we have all seen by the previous post, Muse Marsha’s family had the latest, greatest in Christmas décor-the aluminum tree with the fancy color wheel. She was one of the lucky ones. I remember seeing such things in store windows and in department store displays. I also remember staring in awe at this amazing creation of color and sparkle, knowing damn well we would never get to have a tree like that.

My grandmother had an aluminum tree, a table top size that she perfunctorily put on the coffee table in the living room we weren’t allowed to play in. The living room was painted turquoise and the draperies were pink. The balls on the tree were pink too, and that was the only effort to color co-ordinate anything in the living room. The sofa was green, the armchair was orange, the carpet was maroon,  there were two shield back chairs upholstered in a tapestry framed baroque scene of a man and woman staring at each other with intense boredom, and of course there were lace antimacassars everywhere. With the crazy quilt of color in this room you might think my grandparents would have invested in a color wheel for the tree-why not–it would “go” with every color in the room anyway. But no, the living room was not for sitting in, it was for having, and for entertaining their friends on special occasions, and it’s where my grandfather hid on Sundays after church where he could read the paper in peace, have his scotch and a bowl of chips to himself while he waited for dinner (southern and old fashioned for lunch).

Anyway, they didn’t have Christmas trees in the old country, aluminum or otherwise, so I’m not sure my grandmother was into the Christmas tree thing, or even doing much decorating for the holidays. So all we had to look forward to was an aluminum tree in the living room that we weren’t allowed to go in. Underneath the tree would be our presents, usually socks and/or underwear.

I’m surprised she wasn’t more receptive to Christmas trees, now that I think about it. She liked doing whatever the Americans were doing. Maybe it was too foreign, too German. But she admired the Germans. Very clean people, she told me more than once. Clean was big in her book. Never mind the Germans burned her village to the ground in the Second World War. They are very clean, unlike the French who are not. She divided the world into the clean people and the dirty people, allies be damned. But I digress.

I knew such trees and color wheels existed, and I also knew my parents would have no truck with any such modern, fancy, exciting, stylish thing. My dad was old school. Not so old school we had go to to the woods to get a tree–old school as in buy a real one on the tree lot–often a day or two before Christmas. The timing varied from one year to the next but what never changed was he would not spend a lot on money on a tree, because in his mind, perfect and expensive did not mean beautiful.

He would roam the lot, walking past the big, lush, symmetrical trees. They weren’t there. He was looking for the diamond in the rough. Invariably he would stumble on the one, the tree that was crooked, short, and had bare patches. He would hold it up and say “That’s a pretty tree. Don’t you think that’s a pretty tree?”

Even if you didn’t think so, you agreed with him, and as we had more of these experiences under our belts, we started believing in the beauty of the misshapen, Charlie Brown tree. Crookedness gave it character. If it was a little short so what–back in those days people didn’t have towering Christmas trees, I don’t even remember they were available and in any case, way back when, that degree of ostentation was indecent. And of course you can always turn the bare side to face the wall, or you can embrace it as a decorating challenge. I prefer to think of it as the evergreen shadowbox.

When I grew up, or rather got old enough to have my own place and my own tree, I shopped with a mission for my Charlie Brown tree and trained my husband to do the same. My father would be proud of all the times we scoured tree lots in search of the most forlorn tree we could find, the unloved tree that no one else noticed, so we could take it home, enjoy its fragrance, and make it pretty.

Dad was like that about other things besides Christmas trees. He could see the worth in people others might not bother to notice. That’s why he had so many friends, why he struggled against his prejudices, and probably why I was allowed to live past the age of fourteen.

From the desk of Paula M. Stathakis

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