89: A Real Tradition

89: A Real Tradition

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

A Real Tradition

A mom’s hug lasts long after she lets go.

~Author Unknown

For a single mom and two teenage daughters, putting up a real, seven-foot Christmas tree each year was no easy task. An artificial tree would have been much easier, but every time we asked Mom to get one, she acted scandalized by the very suggestion.

“Those things are awful,” she said. “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a real tree.”

At our house, decorating the tree wasn’t just a chore, it was an event. Mom wanted the tree to be perfect, and our pursuit of that perfection usually resulted in some sort of comical disaster.

First, we’d dig up some rusty tools from the basement to try and trim the trunk and bottom branches, but eventually resorted to using a knife from the kitchen drawer. As it turned out, steak knives from the 1970s cut through pine branches fairly well.

The tree was always so heavy and wide that it took the three of us to force it in through the doorway, and in the process we’d gouge the doorframe and carpet the floor with pine needles.

After we heaved the tree into its stand, the ceiling would need to be repainted because the top branch would scratch it after we misjudged the height. Meanwhile, our West Highland Terrier would dive into the fragrant branches to frantically sniff for traces of squirrels and birds. When the tree wasn’t balanced just right it toppled over, shattering ornaments and soaking the floor with water.

Next we’d pray that the tree lights still worked. If one bulb blew, the whole string went dark, and you had to test each one to find the culprit. If two bulbs went out, you needed a degree in electrical engineering to light the string again.

Eventually, we’d get to the fun part. It took many trips to the basement to get all the ornaments out of storage. Mom acted perplexed by the growing number of boxes.

“How did we get this many?” she asked. By buying tree decorations in every gift shop between New York and Maine, that’s how. Even though we loaded the tree with ornaments until its branches sagged, we never, ever came close to getting all of them on. Yet each year, we bought more.

Wherever we went, we got an ornament to commemorate the trip. If we went to see a Broadway show, we’d check the gift shop for ornaments. Taking ballet classes this year? Get a ballet ornament. Getting married? Having a baby? Great excuses for more tree decorations!

Most of our ornaments were stored wrapped in wads of tissue paper, which forced you to unwrap all of them to find your favorites. Mom supervised and narrated the unwrapping.

“Oooh, I love this one! Remember when we got this on vacation in Maine?” she asked.

I unwrapped an angel. “Aunt Joyce gave you that the year you were born.”

Or, “You made that one in fourth grade!”

Once the decorations were on, we’d skirt the tree with a white sheet to reflect the lights and brighten the base of the tree. Next a snowy village was arranged underneath, complete with a mirror for a pond and a pack of old-fashioned ice skaters. Finally, the tissue paper and boxes were packed away, pine needles vacuumed up, and all the lights turned off.

This was the moment that made it all worthwhile. The tree was radiant. The decorations glistened like jewels and there was silence as we gazed at the lights. We’d put our pajamas and robes on, and Mom would have a cup of tea. Many nights we gathered near the tree to admire its beauty and bask in its glow, as if it generated the warmth of a fire.

Each year Mom said, “I just love our Christmas tree. It looks so beautiful this year.”

In time, my sister and I moved out, but I always returned to help Mom with the tree. We urged her to at least consider getting an artificial tree; they were becoming more popular and realistic. And even though it was getting more difficult to put up the tree each year, she wouldn’t hear of it.

When Mom was diagnosed with advanced cancer at the age of sixty-one, we knew that the next Christmas would be her last. She expressed concern to a friend about how the tree was going to get up that year with her not feeling well, and me with a newborn baby. A few days later that friend arrived at Mom’s house, along with her sisters. Energized by our fresh reinforcements, we put up and decorated her tree. Even though we had it done in no time, it was still an event. Mom was so grateful and relieved that she would be able to enjoy the sight and scent of a real tree one final time.

Now that I had my own family, I could fully appreciate how much work a real tree was. When my second daughter was born, I made the momentous decision to break with family tradition, and bought one of those pre-lit artificial trees that comes in a box and smells just awful.

I had to laugh at the things Mom would have said about that. I had become one of “those people” who had fake trees that they put up the day after Thanksgiving. A part of me worried that the experience would feel less special if the tree wasn’t real and didn’t have that divine evergreen scent.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that it wasn’t the tree that made the tradition meaningful, it was everything that went on around it. Being together, reflecting on shared memories, and celebrating our holiday spirit were much more important than how perfect the tree was, or where it came from.

And to my relief I found that I looked forward to decorating my artificial tree as much as a real one, especially once my daughters grew old enough to help. The girls get excited to look through their ornaments and admire each one. Somehow, they already have quite a few of them, since we seem to buy a new one everywhere we go. They have some very old ornaments in their collection as well — the ones that once belonged to Grandma.

“That was one of Grandma’s favorites,” I explain as they unpack the boxes.

My daughter unwraps one decorated in gold-painted macaroni, “You made that during preschool,” I tell her.

“This ornament’s from the year you started ice skating,” I point out.

Each one marks a milestone, and holds a special memory. “Grandma gave this one to you for your first Christmas.”

And when the kids have gone to bed, and the house is quiet and dark, I get into my pajamas and make a cup of tea. I sit, and sip, and think of my mother. The stronger the memories flow, the brighter the tree seems to glow.

In that moment I find myself thinking, I just love our Christmas tree. It looks so beautiful this year.

~Amy Travison Jasiewicz

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