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.


The worst part of the holidays

Someone recently asked me about my favorite part of the holidays. I am not going to answer that question in this post. No, curmudgeon that I am, I must first talk about my least favorite holiday activity, the part of the season I dread the most, the activity that I would rather not do, but which I did yesterday.

The worst part of the season is decorating the front of the house with holiday lights. I have trouble with heights, but it is impossible to avoid heights when decorating the house for the holidays.

I once lived in a house where I could climb out a second story window onto the porch roof and attach decorations above the porch. That decorating was not so bad. Then I lived in a house where the eaves were well in reach, just a step or two up a stepladder. That decorating also was not so bad. In my current house, the only way to get to the eaves is to go up a tall ladder, high into the air. I can move the ladder along the house and go up and down the ladder fifteen times, or I can climb the ladder to the roof of the house and work along the edge of the roof. I have tried both methods, and I prefer the second way.

First I got the five strings of lights out of the box and untangled them. When they were untangled, I plugged them all in to test them. All of the lights were working. I carefully coiled the strings, hoping they would not tangle while I climbed the ladder. I looped them and the extension cord around my arm, took a deep breath, and began to climb.

One of the three bad things about decorating the house is climbing the ladder. It is a long aluminum extension ladder that is safe up to three hundred pounds, and I weigh well under three hundred pounds. Even so, about half-way to the top, I feel as if the ladder is unstable. I feel this for two reasons: when my weight is in the middle of the ladder, the ladder flexes a bit—my weight has more support near the top and the bottom of the ladder—and also my legs are shaking, making the ladder shake. All the same, I climbed all eighteen rungs (Of course I counted them!) and crawled onto the roof.

The second of the three bad things about decorating the house is being on the roof. Have I mentioned that I have trouble with heights? When I was a small boy I tried to climb trees, because boys are supposed to climb trees. My mother and father were working in the garden, and I screwed up my courage and began to ascend a tree. Before long I reached the point where I was too scared to move either up or down. I would call to my parents for help, and my mother or my father would walk over to the tree, reach up, take hold of me, and bring me back to the ground. They did all this with their own feet flat on the ground. This happened several times. In elementary school, I could not climb the rope to the top of the gym, not because my arms were too weak, but because I was too frightened to get far from the floor.

Once I was on the roof, I untangled the strings of lights again. Then I went to the corner of the house nearest the ladder, pulled a handful of leaves out of the gutter, and clipped one end of the first string of lights to the gutter. As the morning went on, I crab-walked my way along the edge of the roof—remember that I have trouble with heights—cleaning out leaves and clipping lights. Sometimes I had to fuss a bit with the plastic clips to make them hold the lights and then make them stay clipped to the gutter. I worked my way along…the first string…the second string…the extension cord…the third string (I was now past half-way)…the fourth string…the fifth string. All along the way, of course, I was pulling handfuls of leaves and dirt out of the gutter and letting them drop to the ground. Finally the last clip was in place, and I only had to go down and put the ladder away.

The third of the three bad things about decorating the house is going down the ladder.

Before I went down the ladder, I sat for a few minutes on the roof, not near the edge, and looked out over the neighborhood. Also I listened to the chorus of leaf blowers being operated in the neighborhood. Not only do I have trouble with heights; I also have trouble with loud noises, and leaf blowers are a particular bane to me. I can fall into an anxiety attack from the sound of a leaf blower when I am inside the house with all the windows closed. Mrs. Dim chose that fine Saturday to groom her yard. Her goal was met when not a single blade of grass was in contact with a single leaf from a tree. This meant that from time to time she had to backtrack and claim the leaves that had fallen since she started blowing leaves. The entire hour I spent decorating the house, she was blowing leaves, then stopping to bag leaves, then blowing more leaves, then stopping again to bag leaves. From my vantage point on top of the roof I could hear two or three other leaf blowers operating in the neighborhood.

Finally I found the courage to approach the ladder. Getting on the ladder from the roof is not easy. I had to swing my leg over the edge of the roof and feel for a ladder rung I could not see. That was hard to do with my right leg. Once my right foot was planted on a rung, I had to get my left leg off the roof. That was even harder. Finally I was standing on the ladder facing the house. Rung by rung I made my way down—only seventeen rungs going down (of course I counted them!) and the worst rungs were numbers eight, nine, and ten, when once again I was in the middle of the ladder, feeling it flex and shake.

I made it safely to the ground, put the ladder away, and went inside to wash my hands. As I stood at the sink my legs were still trembling. Almost literally, my knees knocked together. After my hands were clean, I prepared lunch and ate it. Then I went to the grocery store to get two ingredients for supper. I came home and put them away. Mrs. Dim was still working in her lawn. I got out my rake and raked the front lawn, putting all the leaves from the lawn in a big pile by the curb so the city can take them away and use them as mulch in the city parks. (I recently read that bagged leaves and lawn refuse make up thirteen percent of the garbage in our landfills. Thirteen percent!) When the front yard was tidy, I got out a box of plastic greenery and bows and decorated the railing around the front steps of my house. Mrs. Dim was still working on her lawn. I went inside, put some loud music on the CD player, and tried to accomplish some work on the computer. Mrs. Dim was still working on her lawn.

When it was becoming dark, I went outside and plugged in my lights. One part of one string was no longer working, but I didn’t care. If someone else wants to go up on the roof and try to fix that string, that’s fine with me, but I can make it through the month with only ninety percent of my lights working.

Someone might ask, J., why don’t you pay some other person to decorate your house if it troubles you so much, being that you have trouble with heights? The answer is that I do not have enough spare money to pay someone to spend an hour decorating my house. At least I do not have as much money as it would take to persuade me to decorate someone else’s house if his or her house was as tall as my house.

Besides, I feel a certain nobility in the fact that every year I do something for my family even though the act terrifies me. Other years I approached the task with stoic nobility—I don’t like doing it, but I will ignore my fears and get the job done. Now that I am in therapy, I am learning to be aware of my fears and deal with them instead of ignoring them. That made this frightening exercise a bit more meaningful, because I was able to use the things I am learning in therapy to address my fears while decorating my house for the season.

What did I learn? I learned that I have trouble with heights.

But now I have blue lights across the front of the house, and every night, for the rest of December, I will plug in the cord that powers those lights and let a blue glow shine in the neighborhood. One of the great things about those blue lights is that they make other people’s white lights seem a dingy yellow by comparison.

Guess how Mrs. Dim decorates her house for the season . J.