O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how loyal are your napkin rings

Once again, it’s time to trim the Christmas tree. If you haven’t already decorated yours, I have two words for you: napkin rings.
Sure, you could have an elegant theme tree, impeccably decorated with (for instance) sienna brown bulbs, gold ribbons and petite white tree lights. Or you could just stick the tips of the branches through napkin rings.
This is how my mother once had us decorate our tree. In all fairness, wWe were living in Florida at the time, and the tree was an artificial balsam that was pink. Some people frown upon artificial pink trees, but none of them live in Florida. Moreover, a lot of the napkin rings were shaped like tropical fish, which made the tree look particularly festive — or, perhaps, like an episode of “SpongeBob Gets Impaled on a Tree Branch.”
There were several reasons why we trimmed our tree with napkin rings, but the main one, I think, was that my mother had lost her mind. It was only temporary. And, in all fairness, there was a lot of stress in her life, including the teeny-tiny detail that my father had been hospitalized for a big chunk of the autumn. We also had moved to Florida from Connecticut a couple of months earlier, and my mother had moved there under duress. She hadn’t wanted to leave Connecticut, and she felt, I think, not merely like a stranger in a strange land, but in fact like a person who had been abducted by aliens.
She would, eventually, get into the spirit of Christmas in Florida; she would even sprinkle instant mashed potato flakes along the house’s front steps to replicate snow — which also allowed my family to become intimately acquainted with the area’s rich and varied insect life. Palmetto bugs, for instance. A palmetto bug is a cockroach that has been to the gym and gotten seriously buffed. A palmetto bug would eat Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua for breakfast.
I was a teenager the year my mother had us trim the tree with napkin rings, and so I must confess that I had far more pressing concerns than whether her once impeccable sense of style had disappeared completely under the sweltering South Florida sun. Sure, there were other indications that her emotional stability was a bit precarious: She spray-painted the antique wooden furniture in her and my father’s bedroom silver. She glued seashells to a toilet seat — new, not used — and called it a wreath. And she randomly tossed some of the hollow ornaments that normally would have been on the tree into our modest swimming pool, clogging the filter and making it very difficult to swim laps.
My point? It wouldn’t have taken Dr. Phil to see that my mother had, well, issues that Christmas.
Nevertheless, our first tannenbaum in the tropics was cheerful and bright. Arguably, a fake tree with napkin rings was a no more inappropriate way to celebrate Christmas than by lionizing a reindeer with a radiation warning light for a nose. This was years before the Disney movie, “The Little Mermaid,” was released, but in my memory that pink tree looks like an undersea mountain with Sebastian and Scuttle and Flounder swimming by.
In subsequent years — even when we were continuing to live in Florida — my mother would revert to more traditional ornaments. There would be tinsel and garland and porcelain angels. No tropical fish. No napkin rings. She had the silver stripped from the bedroom furniture. Never again did her seashell wreath made from a toilet seat appear on our front door.
Those more sensible trees most definitely had their charm. But if you want to make a statement with your tree — send a mayday to your family that you’re sinking fast this holiday season and about to go down for the third time — there may be no better way than with a pink tree and a few hundred napkin rings.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 10, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.