December 26, 2011

Of Christmas Trees Past...

The Christmas Tree is supposed to symbolize something about Christmas, but I don't remember what I read about it. A Wikipedia article says people have been decorating trees and celebrating around them during this time of year since the 15th Century. That's a long history of sweeping up pine needles. Anyway, Christmas has always brought mixed emotions for me, and the tree and the ritual of setting it up has always been a big part of that.

My earliest memory of a Christmas tree was a natural one that my mother's father (whom my sister and I lovingly called "Poppy") had set up in his living room. I was not more than five, and my sister Kim, maybe three. We were the age when we still believed in magical things, and where every shadowy closet still held the possibility of exploration.

Poppy's tree probably stood seven feet high, in a big red and green steel base. It was covered in lots of lights, shimmering tinsel and beautiful blown glass ornaments. I still remember one of those ornaments. It was a deep, dark midnight blue piece of glass, and sat cool in my hand. It was round and tapered, and almost black at the ends - an elegant and mysterious little thing that fascinated me. It seemed expensive and precious, and here it was, just hanging off Poppy's tree some delicate, stained glass piece of fruit that anyone could just pluck off the branch.

With me, my sister and my folks all there, we had more people than we had beds, so I was tucked in on the chesterfield in the living room next to Poppy's big tree. I remember laying there, looking at the reflections and shadows of the tree's lights as they played across the walls of the living room. That night, the room seemed alive with little flickers of light and trembling shadows. I had my little Alvin the Chipmunk doll in bed with me, and I hung onto Alvin, as I watched car headlights streak across the room whenever someone passed down Cook Street outside Poppy's house. That Christmas tree and that room were very special to me.

The next year, we moved out of Poppy's house, and lived in a trailer in Langley, near the transmitters of the radio station where my Dad worked. We were out of the streetlights of Victoria, and out in the bush in Langley, in the middle of 77 acres of scrub brush and dirt. That year, it was our turn to host Poppy for Christmas. Whereas with Poppy, we'd celebrated Christmas in the city, with a thick natural tree and ornaments that were possibly as old as my mother, this year, we had a brand new home, decked out in the latest of 1970s decor, and a brand new fire retardant plastic tree with a trunk that resembled a green broomstick with a hundred little holes drilled into it, and mass-produced foil garlands. Everything about that tree and it's ornamentation was modern, punched, snipped and trimmed out of steel, plastic and tin. Instead of pine, our tree smelled of plastic. We loaded it down with way too many garlands, tinsel and doodads. It was new, and it was all ours.

One Christmas, when we lived in the Mountain View Motel, Mum and Dad had a loud drunken party with some of their new best friends from up the lane. One guy, who way too drunk to walk, lost his balance and fell right into the tree, breaking the trunk of it. Dad fixed it by putting a steel hose clamp around the stick, and our little faux scotch pine lived to stand for another year.

For a couple of Christmases, when I was between the ages of 11 and 13, I remember being the only one setting up that tree. Dad would "supervise" from his armchair (i.e. watch me, have a drink, and watch TV). More often than not, Dad would fall asleep in his chair, and I'd work away on my own to get the tree finished. I remember untangling a really old string of lights, which might have been from the 40s or 50s. The cord was thick and black, and the light sockets were bakelite (a precursor to modern plastics), and much of the colour had faded or flaked off of the bulbs. Many of the bulbs had funny little tin reflectors that clattered and got stuck on each other as I tried to string them up on the tree. I wondered if these particular lights had belonged to my Dad's family. I found some home-made decorations made from egg cartons, pipe cleaners and glitter. Somebody - kids from some other family - had gone to trouble to make these little home-made ornaments, and had put them proudly on their tree at one time.

I was good at working on my own, without much supervision, and it did feel like something creative to do. In my early years, setting up the Christmas tree felt like a big deal for the family. In later years, as they got sicker and sicker, Mum and Dad just didn't seem to give a shit about it. Putting that tree up by myself for a year or two gave me a sense of responsibility, like I was keeping something going, while they laid passed out on the couch or in the armchair.

Over the next twenty years, that little fake tree outlasted many drunken evening screaming fights, happy, hopeful Christmas mornings, and paper thin, anticlimactic New Years eves. It ultimately even outlasted my Dad. I hung onto that little fake Scotch Pine and set it up many many times, and each year, it seemed to come out a little differently. Eventually, my wife and I gave it to goodwill and bought a new faux tree that looked more natural and didn't have so many sharp memories hanging off it. It can still be difficult for me to set up our Christmas tree these days, but I do really enjoy sharing the process, and not doing it on my own.

I was pleased to learn from my sister, that she still had one or two of Poppy's beautiful glass tree ornaments. I think most of the foil garlands that we bought for Dad's little scotch pine were thrown out a long time ago. They were never meant to last. Christmas tree lights and ornaments seem to survive from generation to generation, handed up and handed down, as families and friends perch and balance their love and wishes on the branches of some overburdened tree. Your tree is your family and yourself, and whatever you make of it. Some of it is good stuff that can be tucked away carefully and brought out again next year.


Victoria Scapegoat said...

Wow... I really enjoyed reading this! Thank you for sharing it.

E. John Love said...

Thanks Victoria! Glad you enjoyed it. :)