Assembling Christmas

The other night we erected our yearly eight-foot Fraser Fir. It fills one corner of our big living room. I watched from the couch as Russell and Betsy trimmed the majestic tree. This year I was feeling nostalgic, thinking about Christmases past as they assembled this one. As my only contribution I offered some coaching if I saw a significant void in the field of decoration.

In nearly a decade as a part of this family I’ve come to love the way that decorating is an all-evening family event. First the tree goes up, then the four knitted stockings are hung from the mantle with care, just like the song suggests. Betsy places the four brightly colored letters spelling “NOEL” above our back door, and within the hour Russell has switched them to spell “LEON.” They’ll stay that way the rest of the season.

Right now as I write, our house smells like a conifer forest close to the Arctic Circle, a hint of the deep mythology of Santa, snow, and the far north that drives traditional Christmas icons and seasonal installations even in this ever-warming climate.

Out in the living room the tree is lit with colored lights in the early morning dark. On every branch dangles an ornament heavy with sentiment-there are craft project stars and baby pictures of Rob and Russell from before I knew them. In the years since I joined the Christmas festivities I’ve added a bungee-jumping Santa, a kayaking elf, and a carved duck call that hangs on the tree by a metal hook. I once found a small green Tyrannosaurus Rex wearing a Santa hat and white beard, and now each year he takes his spot of honor on our tall bookshelf.

This is not the Christmas I remember from my childhood. We never had a real Christmas tree. I grew up with a six-foot silver aluminum tree I helped my Mama and sister assemble the Sunday after Thanksgiving from a box retrieved from the attic. I think Mama bought it with Top Value stamps. We’d decorate right after Sunday lunch. Full of fried chicken and rice, we’d drift to the living room where I’d stack my two favorite seasonal 45s on the console stereo-“Snoopy’s Christmas” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” I’d play them over and over all afternoon, driving everybody crazy.

In my family we decorated each tinseled aluminum branch with a perfect red ball, each looking exactly the same, and then we’d set up the magic color wheel, turn it toward the metal assemblage, and plug it in. That wheel was a once-a-year working class answer to the psychedelic ’60s.

On our mantle I always set up the only decoration that still holds deep sentimental value for me. It was an old, passed-down nativity scene with a little brown manger for the waxy, hollow Christ child with the painted halo. Even back then my eco-centric nature was blooming: it was the exotic animals I was drawn toward. When I was little I would always take great care in arranging the camel, donkey, horse, and sheep above the fireplace. I would return often to rearrange them the weeks before Christmas, forgetting most people would think the animals were minor players in the scene.

To finish off the afternoon, there were also single plastic candles with light bulb flames for the windows facing the street. And to add our little contribution to the growing ozone hole, we’d break out one or two aerosol cans of fake snow and finish off the effect of a Southern winter wonderland, spraying the panes around the candles.

Even in the presence of our 100 percent natural fresh-grown tree I still get a little nostalgic for the way we assembled Christmas from a box come down from the attic. My Mama loved whatever was the new. When that new fangled aluminum tree and spinning light came along in the 1960s she couldn’t help but trade her stamps in for it, and I couldn’t help but come to love it. Later on, when I was in high school, Mama bought another fake tree, this one with life-like plastic fir branches, but it’s the aluminum tree from the 1960s I remember.

I walk out to the living room as the light rises. O Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches, aluminum or real.

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