As a child, when money was tight, we had a five foot tall fake Christmas tree. It came in a box that was dented and ripped at the top, and the tree had the scent of old cat pee on it. We would have to take out each branch and the metal pole that made up the middle and put it all together bit by bit. It had layers that you could see straight through from one side to the other, but we built it all the same and stuck it in front of our living room window for it to be on display. It was an activity set for the first Wednesday of December. My mother began putting the tree together while I was still in school and it would often be half built as I came in with the light outside growing dim. Dinner and homework was done before we returned to the tree, working on it steadily again and decorating it bit by bit with the numerous ornaments we had from my life, my mother’s, and beloved ornaments from my grandmother. Three generations on that tree, all equally precious.
As the crowd in Rockefeller Plaza would count down in warm, cold, rain, or snow, we would to until we flipped the switch and on blazed the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, looking dwarfed on our small tv and in comparison to the fake tree we had in our living room.
I loved that tree but I also hated it. It reminded me that we couldn’t afford to get the live trees we had when I was a child, the scent of which was always so strong that my sensory memory could bring it to mind within a second. I hated how skinny it was, that I could see over the angel on top, and the stench that eased out of it when we unpacked it each year. But I loved the effort my mother put into the tree, I loved her determination to bring magic into our living room and I felt as much pride in that tree as she did when we had it centered in our living room window.
It was Christmas and the tree was our own.
I don’t know when we bought the tree, although I suspect it was when my father had lost his job and we were struggling to make ends meet. I don’t know when we got rid of the tree either, but it must have been before I graduated high school because I clearly recall having a real tree during my junior or senior year. Thinking back, I’m surprised to not recall when we discarded the ugly thing, considering how deeply I wanted to get rid of it every year, but instead my memories flash to decorating it and the countdown to flick on those lights.
Growing up, my mother would often tell the story of the Christmas tree before I was born. My mother, still in her first trimester, came home to find a half eaten tree in the townhouse she and my father owned. My father had found it along the road, next to a cow field, and cut it down. Cows had eaten the back half of it, literally giving it a dent. “Next year we’re getting a real tree,” she’d recount having said. “Our baby won’t have a cow-eaten tree.”
When my husband and I moved to New York and I saw the large windows in the living room of our apartment I happily declared they would be our Christmas tree windows. But after moving our belongings in and unpacking, I was left slowly turning in our living room and inspecting every wall and corner as early as August. “Do you think a Christmas tree would really fit in front of that window? We’d have to move the couch, but I don’t think the couch will fit any other way.”
My mother suggested a table top tree. “My baby won’t have a table top tree,” I told her, but there was a quiver in my voice. Money was tight since I left my job and we added on another person to our household, was a live tree really in the cards? Perhaps a fake one would be better while we rented, but I immediately thought of the fake tree of my childhood.
It’s not that I am against fake trees. They have come leaps and bounds since my childhood and now fake trees often look beautifully real. They’re amazing and I marvel at them in any store that sells them, lingering over the life-like branches and oohing and aahing over the glimmer lights. But fake trees still remind me of the time when we simply could not afford anything else and I like the programs often offered at tree farms: you cut a tree down for Christmas, you’ll get a sapling the following year to replace it. But the memory of that layered tree and the smell of cat pee is still the main creator of my reaction.
It’s something that both drives me and frightens me. My father worked his ass off, there is no eloquent way to say that without losing the emphasis of his determination to care for his family. He drove a tractor trailer and for most of my childhood did so cross country, causing him to be gone for weeks at a time. He’d miss an assortment of events in my life and then would come in, happy to be home, with a treasure trove of stories he picked up along the way.
While he was gone, he would call me and tell me what state he was in. We had put up a large map near our phone and I would find the state. He’d tell me the closest city he was in and I’d find that, then he’d ask me to find the closest highway. I excelled in maps by fourth grade and could list off all the states and many of their cities off the top of my head. I learned a lot about the differences each state held, and that not all of America was like what I knew in New York and had experienced in Maryland or Florida.
But money had been hard to come by before my father began working cross country. We had gone through a rough patch. I was young, very young, but I still clearly remember it all with a now-adult understanding. Without going into detail, the struggles of that time still were felt years later. My mother, the homemaker, was left to handle the home front and ensure that my parents’ troubles were not my own. But I am an empath and I was a smart child, I picked up on it all whether through eavesdropping or simply catching the emotion in my mother’s voice or look in her eyes.
With my father often away, my mother prepped for most of the holidays on her own. We made traditions and she busted her ass, much like my father did, in making my world magical. My mother baked a small cake to celebrate my one doll’s birthday and we dressed up and ate the cake slices in my living room. I recall coming home in the dimness of mid-February, my feet wet from melting snow and cold, freezing rain, and a blanket being placed on the floor with chocolates and hot cocoa, as well as a doll donned in a pink dress, to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I believe this happened when my father was away, when money was tight, and it was the first moment in my young life I understood how hard my mother worked to make things normal and magical, with money or none.
And now I am placed in my mother’s shoes. I wonder if it was ever hard for her, or if she had uncertainty, in making the holidays so filled with magic. Did she ever feel silly going to such extremes to make any holiday unique and filled with tradition? Did she ever feel uncertain that I would appreciate it or remember it or that I would not care? Did she ever notice how awful that fake tree looked when it was first taken out of the box and how brightly it shown when it was fully decorated?
The very magic of the holiday seems to be sweeping me up into its own embrace as I buy the bits and pieces of items necessary (in my mind) to pass the magic to my son.
Letters from Santa, hand written, stuffed into folded paper with beautiful designs, held together with a wax seal. A beautiful mug with a detailed reindeer painted across the ceramic for milk and cookies to be placed out on Christmas Eve. A children’s book to be given Christmas Eve night, before we read The Night Before Christmas and tuck our little one to bed. And then there’s the tree.
We found it the day after our first snowstorm. We drove up the drive of the local tree farm, the snow packed down and slick, and stomped our way through the foot of snow with Ryland bundled up. He kicked at the snow, touched it, and smiled. He oohed and aahed at the precut trees–what we ultimately ended up purchasing–and wanted desperately to help decorate it.
And this tree of ours is short. It’s thick and full. It has branches that protrude and obstruct the typical image of a “perfect” tree. But I love it, I love it fully as our little one gazes up at it, happy with the tree bare and just as happy with it decorated. He won’t remember this tree, other than photos and us commenting that it was his first. But the magic is there, I see it in his eyes, and I hope that no matter our situation in the years to come that he’ll take the magic of the season and hold it in his heart, and he will recall how hard we worked to provide him that magic.
In the end, I realize that the holiday isn’t the magic. The presents aren’t the magic. The trees aren’t the magic. It’s our parents, the adults, that are the magic makers of the holidays, the ones to create traditions and memorable moments that our little ones will recall when they are in our shoes and creating magic themselves. We are all taught how to be magic makers and that’s what makes a tree, whether beautiful and freshly cut, or scraggly and scented with cat pee, glow with bright wonder.