Christmas tree past

With apologies to the late Tom Petty… and to my son:

 

He’s a good boy, but sometimes curious,

Can’t help touching what he sees.

It’s a blue spruce, but make of plastic

With ornaments of ceramic and glass.

It’s got colored lights and shiny tinsel.

It’s wobbly, won’t stand up straight.

He’s a good boy, but sometimes curious,

Can’t help touching what he sees:

Now the tree—

Tree falling!

The tree–

Tree falling!

J.

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O Christmas tree (Oh, nuts)

The story so far:

Last May we had a fire on our property—a good-sized storage shed/workshop went up in flames. The cause was a fault in an electrical outlet. As I was driving home after I got the news, I prayed two things: that the fire would not spread to the house, and that no one would be injured. Both prayers were answered. Less important, but also in my hopes, were the Christmas decorations in the back of the shed. Arriving home and seeing that most of the damage had been in the front of the shed, I continued to have hope for a while longer.

But the fire traveled up from the outlet into the rafters and then was carried to the back of the shed, where the decorations were stored. Most of those boxes were scorched, and many of their contents were singed. These contents included many ceramic ornaments and decorations that were hand-made by my mother, who is no longer around to restore or replace such items. Others were special gifts from other years, or special purchases from past Christmases.

The insurance company was very helpful, paying one company to tear down and replace the shed, paying another company to clean items that could be cleaned, and paying us replacement costs for ruined items we did replace and partial value for items we chose not to replace. Most of the cleaned items were returned to us at the beginning of November. I found the autumn decorations and was pleased with their condition. Now, as Christmas approaches, I am gradually unpacking those decorations and placing them around the house.

Our seven-foot artificial Christmas tree had been on the floor of the shed, underneath the other decorations. The cleaners firmly said—before we even had a chance to ask—that they do not clean Christmas trees. I set the tree up in the driveway to air, then left it in the garage until the new shed was completed. This week I finally brought it into the house. My family and I have looked at new trees in the stores, but nothing available now appeals to us. Many of the new trees come with lights already permanently installed, and the Salvageable family does not work that way.

When I was a boy, my father trained me to decorate Christmas trees with a very high standard of perfection. Every light must be attached to a branch; none of the lights can float in midair between branches or merely lay on top of a branch. They must be installed several inches down the branch so there is room to hang ornaments. They must go deep into the tree to give it full dimensions instead of being a cone of lights. In all my years of decorating Christmas trees, I have always insisted on following my father’s method.

I bought eight new strings of lights, each with 150 bulbs. That’s 1,200 bulbs to be placed firmly on branches. As I put them on the tree, I noticed a faint odor of smoke still lingering in the tree. I also noticed dirt gathering under my fingernails. The tree is fifteen years old, so some of that dirt could be from other years rather than ash from the fire. We bought this tree one January after the previous tree had toppled as my son added trucks and dinosaurs to its decorations. It remains full and lifelike, although five of the branches are held to the trunk by twist-ties. When all the lights were attached, I continued with other duties, such as picking up a daughter from dance class and getting the garbage out to the curb. While finishing the latter task, I saw that all the lights on the tree had gone dark. Not wanting to spend more time on it that night, I unplugged it and left it alone.

The next day it was found that only the bottom string on the tree was malfunctioning. I removed it from the tree and checked carefully for breaks in the cord, thinking that a cat may have chewed on the tree and cut the cord. Second I checked for loose bulbs. When both inspections failed to reveal a problem, I decided to change the fuses in the plug of the cord. Suffice it to say that, in an effort to remove and replace those fuses, further damage occurred to the plug, making the string’s replacement inevitable.

Before going to the store, I looked again at the instructions for the cords and learned that the old method of stringing all the cords as one line no longer works with modern lights. No more than three strings can be plugged in together. This appeared to mean that I would have to strip all the lights from the tree and reattach them. At the store, however, an extension cord was found to solve just that problem—the cord has three sets of outlets along its length, so it can be wound through the tree and bring power to all the lights.

I brought home that cord and the new string of lights, only to discover that I had grabbed the wrong package of lights—the cord was white instead of green. So that meant another trip to the store to make the exchange.

Today the tree has lights, but not yet any ornaments. Six boxes in the shed contain Christmas tree ornaments. (I hope one of them also contains the missing pieces to the manger scene—it is short an angel and two sheep and one other figure, probably a shepherd). Maybe tonight and tomorrow, and possibly stretching through the week, those boxes will be brought into the house, each individual ornament unwrapped, inspected, and lovingly placed on the tree. Many memories will be renewed. And we will have our Christmas tree throughout the coming twelve days of Christmas. J.

The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.

Assorted thoughts about Christmas

I have always enjoyed this time of year. The build-up to Christmas and the celebration of Christmas are both meaningful and fun. Being the curmudgeon that I am, though, I can still find reasons to complain even about the Christmas holidays.

When my favorite radio station started playing wall-to-wall Christmas music on the first of November, I was not ready for Christmas music. I switched stations, and even now, with barely a week left before Christmas, I have not bothered to switch back.

For me, Christmas is a celebration with the Church and with my family. In those two places we can be very specific about what we are celebrating. We still have plenty of secular items—the Christmas tree, stockings with gifts, and so on—but we are able to center our celebration on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. When I am at work, observing Christmas is more awkward. On the one hand, I’m glad that they give us paid time off to celebrate the Christmas holiday. On the other hand, when we are in the building, I would just as soon focus on my job. Holiday decorations and parties and sing-alongs do not appeal to me at work, in part because these events have to reach the lowest common denominator so that no one is offended. I don’t object to people decorating their own work space with reminders of Christmas, but if I were to set up a nativity scene, other people might object. So I don’t decorate at all. If I can slip out and miss a party or a sing-along, that’s fine with me. I will do enough celebrating at church and with my family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and through the twelve days of Christmas.

Part of my family celebration involves a new decoration appearing each day through the season of Advent. We have so many items to deck the halls and living room and dining room and outdoors that I can bring one decoration out of storage each day. Some decorations are big projects—the lights on the house, for example, or the tree. Others are just a small touch—a stained glass decoration hanging in a window, or Christmas towels in the bathrooms. When they were younger, the children tried to predict which decoration would appear each day. Sometimes they searched the house looking for that day’s decoration. My oldest even checked in from college, trying to keep up with the daily decorations.

I have stopped sending out Christmas cards. I have neither the time nor the money to spend on that custom. I still get fifteen or twenty Christmas cards a year. Like my parents and my grandparents before me, I like to tape the cards to ribbons and hang those ribbons on the wall of the living room. About twelve years ago, I set aside that year’s cards, meaning to check them later for notes, and they sat around all year. When December came again, I decided to post them with the new cards from that year. Each year the collection grew a little larger. Now I have nearly two hundred Christmas cards on the living room wall and down the hall. I toss duplicate cards or any that I don’t think are attractive. Even when the other Christmas decorations have been put back into storage, the cards will stay up until the start of February.

Like decorations, songs and movies and special food are all part of the Christmas experience. Many of them have no direct connection to the Incarnation of our Lord, but they have all become part of the scenery for this time of year. I understand why many people struggle with depression during this holiday season. I can be prone to depression at times like this as well. By taking it easy, by not having high expectations, and especially by keeping the focus where it belongs and not on what I’m doing, I am generally successful at escaping negative feelings about Christmas. May all those who struggle find ways to do the same. J.

 

The Salvageable way to trim a Christmas tree


I was recently told that I am the only person who treats putting lights on a Christmas tree as an art form. I know that isn’t true: my father taught me his method for lighting a tree, and he is still alive and decorating Christmas trees. However, since I got to put lights on the family tree not once but twice this past weekend, it seems to be the right time to share the method I use to create a beautifully-lit tree.

My father taught me two rules. First, every bulb must be on a branch. There are to be no bulbs dangling in midair, and no strings merely lying along the surface of the tree. Second, some bulbs should be within the tree. They should not all be on the outward branches, creating a hollow cone of light, but they should help to reveal the inner depth of the tree.

Last Saturday I set up the family tree with lights and tinsel, but I decided to delay the ornaments until Sunday, when more members of the family would be available for decorating. It’s fortunate I made that decision, because by Sunday morning it was evident that the old light strings were overheating, shutting themselves off before starting a fire, but still unsafe. After church and lunch I ran out to the store and invested in modern LED lights for the tree. Then I stripped off the tinsel and the old lights and began to place the new lights on the tree.

Here is a step-by-step process of the Salvageable way to trim a tree. Once the tree is in place and stable, bring out the lights. If you are using lights bought in previous years, test the strings one by one, setting aside those that do not light at all. Disregard burnt-out bulbs; these can be replaced during a later step. Once all the strings have been tested and are working, assemble them in a single line and start putting them on the tree.

Most tree decorators start at the top of the tree and work toward the bottom, either clockwise or counterclockwise. With a long single string, that method is impractical. Therefore, I start at the top of the tree in the back and install one row clockwise and the next counterclockwise, reversing direction each time I reach the back of the tree. This allows me to have the entire row of strings together at once without having to go through the effort of circling round and round the tree, pulling the strings of bulbs behind me. Each bulb is carefully placed on its own branch. (This is the time to replace burnt-out bulbs.) Most of them are pushed several inches down the branch so there is room for ornaments. Especially with the middle and lower branches, I work along the branch toward the trunk of the tree and back out, not necessarily on every branch, but on enough branches to have lights scattered through the interior of the tree.

For the home tree, I prefer colored lights—red, yellow, green, and blue. A single-color tree may look better at church (white lights in particular) or other places, but I like the combination of colors at home. Tinsel is optional, and I prefer the strings of tinsel rather than single strands to be placed on the tree one by one. Silver is an ideal color for reflecting the lights of the tree. Unlike the lights, the tinsel can be laid on top of the branches, being careful to fill some of the holes left when lights were placed on the tree. Again, space must be left for ornaments.

The ornaments are to be scattered evenly around the surface of the tree, with heavier ornaments placed on branches within the tree, nearer the trunk. Once again, the goal is to show the richness of the tree rather than creating a hollow cone of decorations. Ornaments of sentimental value should be placed where they are easily seen; others can be used to fill in the back and the lower branches. When children are helping to decorate the tree, this is the time to share stories that the older ornaments bring to mind. It is important that fragile ornaments not touch each other, especially if the household includes cats that like to climb Christmas trees.

Our younger cat still likes to climb the Christmas tree. Between the lights and the tinsel Sunday afternoon she got into the tree and posed, lying along several of the branches about halfway up the tree. Since the decorating has been finished, she has gotten into the tree twice. It is startling to see the decorated tree sway and shake, but the tree itself is stable, and the ornaments so far have not fallen off the tree. Our older cat does not climb the tree; he is content to sleep underneath on the tree skirt, and he can be found there most of the day.

Taking a few steps to help the Christmas tree reach its potential in form and beauty is worth the effort. A tree should be decorated in a calm and relaxed way. The Christmas tree is supposed to be fun, not a source of stress. I recommend that the tree trimmer allow enough time to decorate without being rushed, remain hydrated, and be prepared to share anecdotes and memories while crafting the holiday decoration. J.