Family Tree: Sense Versus Sentiment

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Maybe we’ll skip the tree this year.

We won’t be home for Christmas, so really, what’s the point? Keep it simple. Hang the wreaths. Unpack the crèche. String white lights on the holly bush out front. Done.

But the rituals of Christmas are key elements of my spirituality and sanity. The smell of a Christmas tree is the green scent of happiness. One whiff and I’m six again, hanging tinsel under the watchful eye of my grandmother. One strand at a time, she says softly. Think of icicles in the moonlight.

I can’t remember a year without a tree. The trip to the tree lot launches the season in earnest, a chilly afternoon wandering through rows of blue spruces and scotch pines, breathing in the woods and winter air. My childhood home had a 16-foot ceiling in the living room, a tall order for your average evergreen. The giant specimens we scouted out each December required three men with ladders to set up. Decorating the top branches was an acrobatic challenge, one that my dear departed uncle Hank liked to take on about midnight, emboldened by his good friend, Johnnie Walker.

Besides the big tree, we shopped for a little one to decorate with cookies for my ancient great aunt. A former school principal and professional eccentric, she lived in a big, spooky Charles Addams-type house, and our visits there were memorable for a number of reasons. Aunt Hattie insisted that we bring our report cards, which she critiqued with delight. Good marks were only our due. Less favorable ones were clearly a matter of teacher error. The end result was the same: rewards all around. She would rummage through the flowered shoe bags in her closet and emerge with paper bags full of quarters and silver dollars for each of us. We would set the little tree on her dining room table, and she would clap her hands and call it the dear thing, and recite the rhyme about Christmas is a-coming and the goose is getting fat.

Tree buying in Manhattan when we lived there as a young family was an adventure, a yearly trek to the echoing caverns under the West Side Highway where ranks of trees stood ready for inspection. There, as trucks rumbled overhead, we would measure and bargain. Our apartment was almost as small as our budget, and yet I remember some truly dazzling finds. Hauled home across 15 blocks, crammed into the elevator, set up in the living room window and decked with popcorn and cranberry garlands, those hard-won Fraser firs seemed lit from within.

Here in Knoxville, we’ve run the gamut: trees from tree farms in North Carolina, ordered months in advance. Trees from roadside stands, purchased on Christmas Eve at deep discount. Tall and regal, round and shapely, sometimes perfect, sometimes flawed. The ornaments are family history, packed into brown cardboard boxes and brought forth once a year to remind us of Christmas on 14th Street and Christmas in Winnetka and Christmas in the old house and Christmas in the new house.

It makes no sense to have a tree this year. We would have to breach tradition and put it up early, Southern style. We would have to leave it when we go away, come back to find it tired, shedding needles on the carpet.

It makes no earthly sense, but after all, neither does Christmas. That bright star, those angel choirs, a baby among the sheep and cows. The insistent light that pierces the winter darkness.

A little tree, then, to confound logic.

The heart has its reasons that reason cannot fathom.

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