Last Wednesday night when I came home from work, there was a beautiful fir tree in the living room and the whole house smelled like Christmas. Douglas had brought the tree in earlier in the day and set it up in its plastic stand, which holds about a gallon of water and helps keep the tree fresh during its stay in our dry old house.
When I was growing up, our Christmas tree stand was made of painted metal — plastic was not yet on the market, but that’s a whole ‘nother column — with a little fluted metal base that cupped the butt end of the tree. Every afternoon after school, my mother would send one of us crawling under the tree with a cup of water to dribble into the base and an old bath towel to mop up the floor as the water leaked right back out again.
But in our house this Christmas, the tree is lush, fresh and full, secure in its non-leaky plastic tub of water and in no danger of drying up anytime soon. I strung it with lights on Friday night while Douglas was away. He likes small, white lights, finding them “tasteful.” Personally, I find them “boring” and go instead for the bigger, gaudier, multi-colored bulbs of my youth. We’ve agreed to trade off alternate years and this was my year for colored lights, although I have switched over to the smaller bulbs to appease him. Marriage is full of compromises.
On Monday evening, Douglas lugged in the big plastic tub labeled “CHRISTMAS” from the barn. We put on his cassette tape of The Christmas Revels and pried the lid off the tub. Inside were myriad smaller boxes containing our ornaments.
Now, Christmas ornaments are a curious phenomenon. I know some families make deliberate decisions about how to decorate their trees and have boxes full of identical glass balls or other matching ornaments. Their trees tend to look calm and composed.
But in other families, the ornament collection grows more organically. Douglas and I each have acquired a treasured lifetime conglomeration of old family ornaments, new purchases, children’s creations, gifts and found objects. Our tree does not look calm and composed. It looks more like an explosion at a carnival — especially, Douglas points out, with those gaudy colored lights.
From my collection come the lethally sharp-edged, painted metal flowers made from the tops of tin cans and purchased by my parents from a street vendor in Mexico City, where I lived as a child. Also, from my own children’s youth, some of their own sweet and clumsy creations, some store-bought clay barnyard animals, a wooden fireman with a hose, a garland of paper Santa dolls and a few surprisingly festive, gilded squirrel tails, courtesy of our cats. (Actually, I haven’t found the squirrel tails this year, but I know they’re around here somewhere …)
Not to be outdone, Douglas’ decorations include four dried crayfish. He also has a small leather camel from Morocco, a tiny human figure intricately woven of grass, a felted Dalmatian dog and a green glass pickle, life-sized.
Our tree also is decked with gifts from friends, including some beautiful, heavy, hand-blown glass balls made by artist David Jacobson of Montville and, from a dear former co-worker at The Jackson Laboratory, a large and slightly creepy glass head of Charles Darwin.
At the top of our splendid tree, we affixed a curious Santa figure from the 1960s, made of an early plastic material known as Bakelite and lit from within by a single light. A festive and funky ornament in its own right, the Bakelite Santa also pays tribute to Douglas’ late wife, Janet, who grew up with it at her family’s home in Newfoundland.
This year, we hung all the most durable and least dangerous ornaments along the lower branches of the tree. That’s because we’re expecting our 18-month-old granddaughter, Hazel, to be with us on Christmas evening. She’s too young to appreciate it now, but someday, at least some of the quirky explosion of ornaments on our carnival of a tree will be hers, lucky girl. For now, we’re just looking forward to sharing the fun of the day and making new memories with her — and with each other.