Decorating my family’s Christmas tree is hands down my favorite holiday tradition. When I was in high school, we would all make the trek on some blustery Saturday in mid-December to a local high school, where men in a field sold big fat conifers. After the traditional twenty minutes of arguing over one person’s pick or another — debating holes, height, and density of needles (the one year we all picked the same tree we were so shocked we spent twenty minutes arguing over whether it was jinxed) — we strap the winner to the roof of the car and drive it home. The tree is carefully maneuvered through the front door to a corner of the den, where it is secured not just in its base but also, via a series of wires and twine, to the bookcase and adjacent wall, a recent addition after the Great Christmas Tree Fall of 2011 resulted in the tragic demise of dozens of ornaments, a loss from which we have not yet fully recovered (my roommate, who happened to be in the room when I received the bad news via phone call from my mother, still mocks me for all of my “Oh no!”’s, which led her to believe a human member of the family had died).
Putting the lights on the tree is strictly a man’s job chez Harlan, so while my dad and brother untangle strings of twinklers (both white and colored, much to Scout’s chagrin), my mom, sister, and I embark on the arduous task of unpacking the two giant Rubbermaid boxes of ornaments, unwrapping childhood hand prints, porcelain nutcrackers, bearded Santas, and a glass pickle from their paper towel shrouds. I’ve never understood those people who have a theme or color scheme for their tree, all done up in plain glass balls (We only allow one plain ball on the tree. It is green and is titled, creatively, the Green Ball. It Survived GCTF2K11, in what was quickly classified a Genuine Christmas Miracle.). Santa brings each of us an ornament, or three, for Christmas every year, hanging them on the brass hooks with the stockings my grandmother knit for each of us when we were born (or married into the family, as the case may be). Each stocking is individualized, with curly Santa beards (my dad) or twinkling red holly beads (mine). As children, it was a great source of contention that my grandma did not stay consistent over the years when it came to size, so my sister’s and my stockings pale in comparison to my brother’s 27.5 inch monstrosity, while my poor dad’s looks positively puny (as the oldest child, he got the “first pancake” of the stocking world).
Once the tree is all lit up, the ornaments are unwrapped, and the mulled cider is brewing on the stove, it’s time to begin. Christmas comes with a specific soundtrack in my house: Nat King Cole, followed by Bing Crosby, then a mix of Judy Collins (my dad’s favorite), Barbra Streisand (a nice Jewish girl, and therefore my mom’s favorite), and Peter, Paul, and Mary, whose rambunctious rendition of “Children Go Where I Send Thee” prompts lusty singalongs by my siblings and me). The first strings of “The Christmas Song” swell out of my grandpa’s old speakers, everyone selects their first ornament, and then the free for all begins.
Now, there might be some who would say my family is a bit, well, territorial with our ornaments. I prefer to think of us as passionate, a little on the sentimental side, but whichever way you spin it, it is a strict no-no to put somebody else’s ornament on the tree. In the unpacking process, certain ornaments made by or bestowed upon each family member are relegated to a corner of the dining room table, off limits to any but the owner. As the oldest child, I had a four year head start when it came to ornament accumulation, so my pile tends to outnumber my sister’s (although she got a “cast gift” boost from her many years dancing in “The Nutcracker”) and totally dwarfs my brother’s dump trucks and karate kids. My poor mother has the smallest cache, with a sprinkling of wooden pots and one sequined star of David, but as an adult adopter of the Christmas spirit, she doesn’t seem to mind.
By the time the CD changer runs out of carols, the tree is fully decked, and despite my dad’s grumblings we always manage to fit all the ornaments on there somehow, and have yet to be forced to purchase an extension tree for the overflow. When I was little, I used to hide behind the tree, holed up in the corner staring up at the lights and smelling pine. Nowadays I opt for a horizontal approach, lying on the floor with my head on the patchwork tree skirt and staring up into the branches, “Grey’s Anatomy” style.
In a few short hours, I’ll be on plane, heading from Newark back to my old Kentucky home. Now I’m not expecting snow, and we’ve never been big on mistletoe. But I am expecting a big pile of ornaments lying on a packing blanket, waiting for me. And that’s when Christmas really begins.