Oh gnarly tree

I am fortunately immune to nostalgia about past celebrations of the yule, with one exception: the Christmas tree. Not a tree in the abstract, but the Christmas tree I grew up with, a monstrosity of fakery laden with all the menace American manufacturing could muster in the era before the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

What an ugly, mismatched object. But it was of our family, every bit of it, indeed represented us, for better and for worse, from our mother’s (perhaps too-) fierce love for her young to the unnecessary risk-taking that frequently complicated our lives.

As my parents had only one Christmas together without kids, the tree went into service right away—both as a beacon of hope for gift-greedy children and as a threat to their well-being. The trunk was a green wooden cylinder, about the width of those cheap wooden closet rods we all have in our closet at one time or another.

The branches, also green, lchristmas tree lightsooked like the twisted section of a wire clothes, except thicker, stronger, and sharp enough to drill into a can of creamed corn. Needles made of a 1960s mystery polymer poked out from the “twigs” set into these branches. A branch went into a hole in the so-called trunk. We judged which hole by the length of the branch, with the longer ones on the bottom. As time went by, my dad (and later me) had to really dig those sharp ends into the wood to make them hold.

For added festiveness, the manufacturer provided a half-dozen or so boughs. These needly balls had many potential uses—sanding a floor, starting a tetanus epidemic, disabling a car during a chase, breeding porcupines, etc.

We owned a smattering of ornaments, a mix of gifts and whatever caught my mom’s eye, and strings of many-colored lights; and I suspect a small part of the tinsel clung to the needles year after year, though we always bought a new package or two, to gussy up the tree and, when my youngest sister came along, to play “decorate the baby.”

But family members produced the bulk of the decorations. Early on, for example, Mom bought a kit of balsa wood decorations. Though paint-by-numbers, the Santas and reindeer and stars shattered her nonexistent patience, and the decorations went onto the tree with only one side painted, and not always fully painted, either.

The tree became even increasingly disordered as more and more children added more and more school holiday projects, personal art, and found holiday clutter to the branches. The clay gingerbread man I brought home from first grade remained on the tree when I came home from college. There were odd “god’s eyes” made of yarn, a mini-beanbag Santa, ornaments cut from cereal boxes, anonymous lumps of papier-mache ejected from various kindergartens and Sunday schools, little wooden toys thankfully bought whole and fully painted, and about a thousand other things.

My dad, a great disliker of Christmas, nonetheless enjoyed digging out these treasures. The four kids, as one—a rarity—refused to revise the tree even when we were old enough to be embarrassed by it. No matter how tattered or tarnished an object, it stayed. Anarchy had one huge advantage as a decorating principle. When a child or poorly socialized pet inevitably brought down the tree, putting its look back together was no problem.

By some miracle (of Christmas?) these fellings never ended in injury, not even to one of the dogs. Usually, someone brought it down after getting snared by the lights. The tree fell to the side, rather than on top of anyone. Then again, these kinds of near-misses defined our future wild years in a lot of ways. Humans have trusted weirder objects as tools of prophecy.

Eventually, my dad got rid of the tree. Maybe it had become a danger too large for even him to laugh off, or he associated it too much with his late wife, or the FDA sent him a warning letter, or it lost its charm once a quorum of his kids had left the house. The decorations, sadly, vanished, too, a box of flotsam both worthless and priceless, as transitory as fallen snow in the end, but at least having enjoyed a run long in life and longer in memory. May we all enjoy the same. Happy holidays and a great 2016.