The air turns crisp and icicle gardens sprout beneath the deck like unicorn horns. The robins have gone, replaced by their cardinal cousins, whose song echoes deep into the still pine forest surrounding my house.
The Christmas season has come.
A flurry of excitement grows; wood is gathered, stocked just outside the front door, and every night my family curls beside a crackling fire, telling stories or reading books, as the decorations around us multiply in golds, greens, and scarlet reds. The stone Buddhas on the mantel get Santa hats, stockings are hung; my father’s collection of candles come out of storage and fill the house with the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, and the spice of the season–a spice I do not know the name of, but know belongs to this holiday alone.
Every few days a new present appears next to the chimney, with curled ribbons and embossed matte paper. I love the feel of the indents under my fingers; my curious, seven-year-old eyes want to know what’s inside, even when it’s not my present.
All season we hear carols, Christmas rock n’ roll, parodies… my father has over twenty CD’s and I haven’t gotten sick of a single one. I grin wickedly at times, when I remember the little presents I’ve squandered away for my brothers and sisters, the small clay presents I’ve slaved over for my parents.
The day comes, at last, when the bird cage is moved and the dining table is pushed to the side. We all know it was coming: the day we bring “The Tree” home.
My father isn’t one for fake trees. We go to the lot every year, all eight of us, and scrounge it for the very best money can buy. If we aren’t perfectly happy with a tree, we drive to the next lot. A tree is nothing to scrimp on.
This particular year, we find the tree to end all others. Towering above even my father at 16′, we have to get it shipped to our house, because neither of our cars can safely transport it. The delay is almost worse than waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. Almost.
When it arrives, it is as if the season itself has finally manifested in a material way. For me, Christmas has never been about Santa (though I do believe in him); it has always been about The Tree. There is something magical about it. I could sit in front of our Tree for hours, lost in the warm glow of its lights, and the memories encapsulated by its many ornaments.
We don’t buy ball ornaments, you see. The ornaments we use have meaning; special moments between father and daughter, mother and son; recognition of a magic we all share and see between each other.
Our collection is already three boxes full, but before the ornaments go on, the lights have to. This is my first year being entrusted with part of this essential task. I take it seriously. My dad shows me how to fill the dark spots, but not strangle the branches. My brother is on the step-ladder stringing the lights at the top of the tree. I work from the bottom. We will meet in the middle, and once we plug the strands in, our tree will become a beacon in this dark December forest, visible across the river from the lonely bridge I cross every day on my way to and from school. Happiness in the gray. Light in the chill of winter.
The next day, the ornaments come out of their careful shells of newspaper. Fragile icicles, Finnish Santas, Mexican angels: the variety and charm of the collection is like a secondary Christmas, every year. Tiny, antique glass birds are carefully scooped out of their packing nests and hung deep in the branches–should someone bump into the tree and shatter them, the flock would mourn their loss. Glass fruits with iridescent glitter make me laugh (and make me hungry), though I can never quite understand how a pickle ended up in the mix*.
Eventually, someone finds my younger brother’s five-year-old gingerbread man cookie-turned-ornament. It still smells fresh, and a whiff delights our noses. Pine cones, both real and glass, dangle naturally from pine branches. Felt drummer bears and trumpet bunnies dance up on the higher tiers, while a Oaxacan mermaid tops the tree, for no star has ever graced The Tree’s peak.
The Tree is skirted in red, and the thousand lights that adorn its great, majestic form double and triple in the window panes around the room, turning the living area into a faerie ballroom. I take naps under its comforting scent; I brush my fingers across its prickly needles. I love every moment The Tree is with us. We keep it until we can no longer sustain the green. Every year The Tree becomes part of our family, and this year, the year that outdid all others, it will never be forgotten.
Fast forward so many decades to this year, and I still remember that time, that place; the magic and love my family shared in that perfect, unadulterated moment.
Christmas isn’t a huge holiday over in Japan… Fake trees are about all that is available. Ornaments are cheap foil and plastic. The lights they sell are not the sort that last the season. But every so often I find an ornament, and every so often I buy it, in hopes that I can build my own collection, my own chest of memories. The Tree is still my favorite part of Christmas. I may not be able to get the real thing out here, but the recollection of years past is strong enough to make up for it.
Thank you, each and every one of you who read this blog, and may you have a happy holiday, whichever one you celebrate. I wish you all the best: health, love, luck, and happiness in the new year.
*-As it turns out, I discovered this year that the pickle ornament is a German tradition, in which the first child to find the pickle on the tree gets an extra present that year.
- The Meaning Of The Christmas Pickle Ornament~ (1019litefm.cbslocal.com)