Some stories get told over and over again at Christmas. Frosty the Snowman, Night Before Christmas, The Wise Men and Shepherds. This is one I like to remember and particularly this year.
One of the Christmas traditions for Canadian families involves putting up the tree.
Flashback to 1957.
Our family has recently moved into a new house on Victoria Street in London, Ontario. It is time to put up the Christmas tree. My Dad is delegated to get a tree and bring it home for the family to adorn on a wintry Saturday afternoon.
Dad drags the tree into the living room, leaving a trail of sticky pine needles through the kitchen and over the dining room carpet. The tree, of course, is much bigger inside than it appeared on the lot. The top spire is bent up against the ceiling. Dad heads back out to the garage to cut it shorter. Unfortunately cutting off the lower 18 inches also removes many of the fine spreading branches that made the tree look so “full”.
Back inside the next chore is to screw on the little red and green metal stand so the tree will stand up straight. But how can a tree with such a crook in the stem ever stand straight? Mom is not impressed with his choice of tree and keeps making disparaging comments while dad is lying on the floor trying to screw on the stand so the tree doesn’t fall forward every time it is stood up. My brother and I, about age 5 and 10 at the time, are meanwhile sorting through the Christmas ornaments, piling them into ones we like best and ones we don’t. One or two of them shatter when we drop them, emitting a most satisfying “pop” as they do and exploding little red and silver shards into the carpet. It was always disappointing to break one of those ornaments but there was also something quite intriguing about the shiny bits that resulted. And that funny little spring plug thing in the top of the ball suddenly was exposed and less mysterious.
Dad, in the meantime, is trying to figure out how to tie the tree to the curtain rod to keep it from falling over. Mom is busy cleaning up needles and sap and broken glass and asking why Dad got that tree in the first place. Tippy the cat is curiously watching and is soon choking on a tinsel ribbon until she throws up.
We start to put the lights on the tree. Back then the lights were little screw-in bulbs, the paint on many if them chipped off and some burned out. This made positioning them aesthetically a problem. There were also a couple of special bulbs that had to be prominently displayed. They had a little reservoir of fluid that was somehow heated by the bulb and sent bubbles up a pencil-like tube. Next the balls, the handmade ornaments from school and lastly the tinsel. There was always a debate about how much tinsel looked best. Throwing the light silver strands toward the tree to see where they will land was always something I enjoyed.
As the last touches are made, Mom, clearly not happy with the crooked stem, the piece of twine holding the tree up or those “bare spots”, comments how the tie-up to the curtain rod spoils the whole thing. It looks, to her, that the tree, as flawed as it is, will stand on its own. Dad, becoming ever more exasperated by the editorial comments coming from the rest of us, takes some scissors and says “Well, let’s see.” He cuts the twine. The whole tree falls forward in a heap. Mom, hands on her hips sighs and says what a poor choice this tree was.
Dad picks up the tree, carries it decorations and all to the front door, goes out onto the front porch and pitches it onto the front lawn. I rarely heard my dad curse but as he throws the tree he blurts out “Balls!” Then he adds “Christmas ones!”
Bob and I are standing in the doorway crying. Mom is fussing about what the neighbours will think. The cat is hiding in the corner. Dad is red-faced and likely now wondering how he will get out of this antic and save face. A picture of this taken from the street would have made the perfect Christmas card.
I actually don’t remember what happened next. When you are ten years old you don’t pay much attention to how these little family squabbles resolve. As long as they do. And somehow the tree ended up back in the living room and in the dark, with the lights twinkling and tinsel shimmering, the twine was not obvious, nor was the crook in the stem. The bare spots were filled with little packages and garland.
This, too, would have made a perfect Christmas card.
I will let you imagine the rest.