The second in our Holiday Nightmares series
The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I'll kill 'em.
-Nora Charles, The Thin Man (1934)
Nick and Nora and their 1934 tree
I’ve always rather liked Christmas trees, though, as I look back, I can’t remember much about many of them. I put mine up last night and had an enjoyable time of it. If nothing else, there was the pleasure of not having anyone to tell me how to do it better in real time.
When I was a boy, in the 1960s, Christmas trees were a spectator sport. My dad took care of all the setting up and decorating. I dimly remember being allowed to help hang tinsel on a tree or two: that element of tree decoration was on its way out, and I didn’t see it again until a few, late 1980s holidays I spent with my sister’s in-laws, who lived near me in Oregon. After everything else was done, Mrs Colonel would bring out the caskets bearing the holy family relics: the tinsel they had hung on their trees every year since their marriage in 1941. One of my favorite things about black and white holiday movies is how tinsel was shoveled onto trees by the hundredweight.
In 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife, Cary Grant, playing an angel, decorates the easy way. I am always surprised no evangelical groups call for a ban on showing it today, since what Grant did was clearly magic, and magic is the province of witches- and Satan.
Fragile as King Tut’s bandages, the strands were laid, one by one, around the tree limbs. As they wore out over the decades, the effect grew increasingly sparse, but the meaning they carried was immense.
I was always glad not to be around for the removal and reboxing process. There lay danger.
Sometime- in graduate school, I think- I took on the tree duties from my dad, who suffered heart trouble and tired more easily than in the past. In this role, I was a European-style technocrat: a process guy. The tree went up in the appointed manner, the decorations were retrieved. I string the lights. And restrung them, and strung them yet anew. My mother had a Hyacinth Bouquet-like eye for perfection in the balance of limbs and lights. Afterward, we used to drive round town at night to see what all the neighbors had put up. My mom was a devotee of the single, white, electric candle in all the front windows.
Once I got into my own career, on the west coast, Christmas became a burden to be borne. It was taken for granted that I would come home for the holidays. This meant I saved up a year’s worth of vacation time, took the entire two weeks en famille, and then returned to work in January, stressed out and with no time off for the next fifty weeks.
My parents, and all my high school contemporaries, worked a regular schedule, so I rattled around the house attending to my to-do list. Occasionally word would get out I was in town, and a party invitation would issue. There, all my classmates- who had intermarried and stayed in town, quizzed me over why I chose to live so far away.
The day, like most holidays, was-increasingly- trying to manage the minefield that was family gatherings. I was the fixer. All the post-gifting cleanup was mine, ditto the post meal. My sisters, who were more social, usually bailed for the afternoon/evening round of calls. I kept the parents company.
I usually also had work to do. My firm was of no help when I was away. Instead of dealing with my calls, they just gave clients my parents’ phone number. When I got up in the morning, the calls started; when I sat down to dinner, the late afternoon calls began. The Fedex man was a friend; some of the attorneys with whom I dealt liked filing motions when they knew I was away, just for fun and tactical advantage. In the pre-internet age, this made life a bit fraught, managing to do research in a place with no state law reports from where I worked.
My last family Christmas tree was in 1991. My sisters and I spent a year nudging my mother into a big family gathering on the South Carolina coast for her and my father’s 40th anniversary in 1992. We had a touching, if idiotic, notion that we could have a fun family weekend together, like people we knew did. At intervals- usually after money had been lashed out, for air tickets, or beach house rental fees- she would spiral off into one of her parallel universes and announce she was not going. We had not consulted her.
After a catastrophically awful week- she arrived with a carload of food, since we had not cleared menus with her- I flew home and began booking trials through the holidays. I was a prosecutor then; crime did not observe the calendar, and all my colleagues were delighted to shift work so they could get more time with their loved ones.
I never went home for Christmas again. The invitations came every year, at least until 1996.
The next year- 1992- I bought my first Christmas tree and put it up in my own home. For a decade, it was one of the highlights of the season. After 1995, I had my partner, John, to go get a tree with. We accepted some friends’ invitation to join them at a tree farm, not knowing they pretty much made a day of it- the farm was on the Olympic Peninsula, requiring a wait, then a one hour ferry trip each way- and had all kinds of silent dog whistle rituals and jokes you can only accumulate over twenty years of doing the same thing with the same people. We were the odd couple out, and it usually rained. Poured, actually. My parents quit inviting me home for the holidays. “We just assumed he’d rather be with his friend’s family there,” they told my sister.
We opted out after a few years, and when we found out the Seattle AIDS Support Group- which occupied a big house left to it in the next block over- sold trees. We walked over, saw a lot of friends and neighbors, and did the deed. John picked the tree. I carried it home, hoisted it up to the second floor, set it up and did the lights. John’s mother had given us a boxful of ornaments from the family tree in Spokane, so decorating was John’s job, to make sure they all held pride of place.
Our last holiday season we vacated the house for the new owner just after Thanksgiving. My partner, who had unloaded me by email, was too distressed by the thought of dividing the ornaments up to even contemplate it. I waited til he went to be done night, and in 45 minutes did the deed. His parents wanted their ornaments back, along with the down payment they had given us with the affidavit swearing it was an irrevocable gift.
Seattle is a big metro area, and I learned all the live Christmas tree farms required a goodly drive. I didn’t mind; foolish 45-year-old that I was, I had fallen in love in the fall, probably seeing the world as all fresh and promising after a summer bike accident and several months’ convalescence. In those pre-GPS days, we wandered into the wilds of Pierce County, close on to the slops of Mount Rainier, getting lost several times. Back at my place, Mark made dinner while I put up the tree- including the decorations.
The next year I hung the wreath on the door and did the house up with smaller holiday trappings. No tree. I was single again, and the holidays had come to signal the onset of some fresh, Dorothy Parkerish, hell. My Christmas tree decade was done.
I spent the next decade making guest appearances at Christmas celebrations put on by others, Newland Archer making his rounds.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol sampler, 1988
Last year came new digs, rehabbing a house with a friend. He came home with an artificial tree that looked remarkably lifelike, at least to me. I came up in the Age of Artificial, Space Age Wonder Trees, which, after the aluminum-covered paper-needled-firetraps of the ‘50s, peaked with the ghastly silver-tinseled stick with limbs and a rotating color wheel in front of a searchlight. This one came with pre-attached LED lights: convenient and energy-sipping.
So last night was Tree #12 for me.
It may be time to stop. Next year will be #13. Donald Trump may be president-elect.