There is a moment in one of my older novels in which a couple gets a little randy beside a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, and then departs for the evening church service. This time of year I hear from readers about that scene, and no one would categorize some of their responses as “fan mail.” Is the scene a little over-the-top? Maybe. But I always hoped it conveyed one thing: I like Christmas trees. I like them a lot.
One of my favorite memories of my daughter’s childhood is when my wife and I would bring her to Fred and Eleanor Thompson’s Christmas tree farm on Quaker Street here in Lincoln and together pick out our tree. The first year my wife held her in her arms and our daughter pointed out the one she wanted; the next year we pulled her among the trees on a blue sled until we found one that she liked but wasn’t too tall for the living room. Until she was five, she always wanted trees that belonged at Rockefeller Center.
I inherited my appreciation for Christmas trees from my mother, who would always go a little Ed Grimley as Christmas neared. Ed Grimley is the Saturday Night Live character created by Martin Short who – as Grimley would put it – goes “completely mental” over things that he loves. My family would trim the tree exactly twelve days before Christmas, and usually there was a theme. All bows. Nothing but red. Napkin rings.
I’m not kidding: Once we trimmed a tree with napkin rings. It actually looked pretty good.
And given that my mother was a perfectionist, there was a period when our family had two trees. There would be one in the family room that the males – my brother and my father and I – would decorate, and one in the living room that my mother alone would tackle. This was a reasonable plan, given the anarchic designs that my brother and I occasionally had for the tree. One Christmas, we trimmed our tree almost entirely with finger-length plastic soldiers. Nothing says peace on earth and good will toward man like a guy hurling a hand grenade.
Now, all of the trees from my childhood were artificial. It was not until my wife and I were married and living in Brooklyn that I ever trimmed a tree that once had been living. When my wife and my daughter and I were visiting my father in Fort Lauderdale last month, we passed a tiny, triangular spit of grass on Las Olas Boulevard on which a woman was selling live trees. They had been trucked to Florida from points north and already looked a little mangy. Nevertheless, I found myself running my fingers over the needles and remembering the first time my wife and I bought a tree off the streets in Brooklyn.
Just for the record, not only were the trees of my childhood artificial, some years they were white. Twelve days before Christmas, my father would exhume them from the coffin-like boxes in which they were stored, and when I was in tenth grade I finally figured out what they smelled like: My chemistry classroom.
But here’s the thing: I associate those trees and the tradition of trimming a tree with my family. It is the other elements of Christmas that I associate with my faith. If there’s an element in the Christmas Eve scene in that older novel that’s particularly autobiographic, it occurs later in the evening when the male narrator is raising and lowering a candle with his young daughter beside him as the congregation sings “Silent Night” in the dimly lit church. The narrator is so moved by the moment that he is speechless and unable to sing. Some Christmas Eves in the United Church of Lincoln, that’s me.
The big day is less than a week distant now. Be patient. Be kind. Remember to smile when someone gives you a fruitcake, because it is the gracious thing to do and because without fruitcake we would all eat too much.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 19, 2010.)