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My perfect Christmas tree

The most enthralling mystery of my preschool years concerned our Christmas tree. How could our pine-panelled living room hold anything so splendid as this fragrant, glittering spire,every branch hung with treasures that had somehow emerged from a corner of the basement? And once installed in its glory, why shouldn’t it stay that way all year?

My mother told me what the future held for our tree: falling needles, bare branches and an ignominious journey to the side of the road, where the garbage truck would sweep it away before it became a fire hazard. I couldn’t quite believe this until I saw the corpse of our tree atop a snowbank. “We’ll get another one next year,” my mother said.

A year was forever to me then, but now December comes around so fast that Christmas is practically upon us before we get around to putting up the tree. We just did the honours yesterday. The last time we waited so late, there was only one tree left in the lot—an Ugly Duckling with a crooked trunk and an unbecoming gap in one side. Artfully recut and placed, it still looked more than respectable in its finery. This year no heroic measures were required. We have an artificial spruce that unfurls like an umbrella. Dressed up, it can just about pass for the real thing.

As any Christmas purist well knows, there are two unmistakeable differences between real trees and pretenders. First of all, nature doesn’t grow perfect triangles. A real tree zigs and zags endearingly, unlike the spires engineered in factories. And only real trees have the scent of the forest (more likely the tree farm, still heady and transporting.). My mother would as soon have a plastic tree in her house as bake her cookies with margarine. She raised me to view the yearly purchase of a tree as a kind of pilgrimage that would get me, if not to the Garden of Eden, at least to a peephole in the gate.

In middle age I arrived at my own take on this. I grew tired of lugging the tree in and out amid a shower of needles. I never did entirely reconcile myself to the sight of a withered, cast-off tree. More important, I realized that the soul of the tree is not the thing itself, which anyone can bring home, but the lovingly accmulated trappings that make it uniquely mine.

Like a photo album, our tree tells the story of my life. The oldest and most beloved ornament, a clear glass ball hand-painted with  stripes, is the last survivor of a set given to my parents on their first Christmas together. Plucked from the tree of an older, long-married couple, the Harrises, it expressed their high hopes for the newlyweds.

As it happened, my father drank with not-so-quiet desperation, especially at Christmas. The “most wonderful time of the year” was at our house charged with piercing disappointment, yet still we rallied each December to create the miracle of our tree, which celebrated a depth of harmony that forever eluded us. My sister and I competed to hang the flashiest ornaments, baroque affairs encrusted with glitter. We scorned the understated Harris balls, so it was always my mother who hung them with grave care, twisting the wire hooks tightly around the branches lest they fall and shatter. In time, all but one of them did.

I still have a few of those gaudy balls that sparked the childhood fights, and the bargain-priced Woolco balls from the first tree I trimmed for my husband and son. They didn’t go very far, so my sister, who was visiting that year, made whimsical adornments out of ping-pong balls representing the Three Wise Men. In their sequined paper crowns, they have survived to this day. It’s been years since I last spent Christmas with my sister, and I always think of her when I hang the Wise Men.

Through the years, I’ve collected sets of this and that. Wooden angels on rocking horses. Chains of faux pearls. Glass birds with feather tails (my son always used to hang the red one), and another flight of birds in crystal. Red hearts, gilt horns, polished apples and a phalanx of  kids playing various sports. No one else we know has a tree with a tiny baseball glove and six ornaments shaped like baseballs, complete with pink stitching. (My husband, a baseball fan, chose this motif while we were browsing through a gift shop on a recent summer vacation.) Between Christmases , I forget that we own such a highly expressive melange. Somehow it all adds up to an entrancing tree.

I scorn the very notion of designer trees in this year’s hot colours. As I see it, Christmas trees are celebrating life, not fashion. Besides, a multi-coloured, go-for-broke, glittery tree is the seasonal equivalent of a little black dress—always right, wherever it happens to be.

This year we almost decided to skip the tree. We had left it so late, and we’re spending Christmas with friends. Did we really need to make the effort? We did, and I’m glad. I haven’t seen such a beautiful tree since last year, and of course it was the one in our own family room. I like to turn out the lights and watch it sparkle. Since it isn’t real, I can leave it up as long as I choose. But then it wouldn’t be as special as it is. Soon enough I’ll be wrapping all the ornaments in tissue paper until next year.

Posted by Rona

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