My origin story begins on Christmas Eve. My parents met on December 24th on a southbound train. When they married a decade later, it was at the end of January, but neither of them could remember which day. They always regarded Christmas Eve as their anniversary.
The run-up to Christmas Eve each year filled our house with excitement. My parents’ faces softened; they laughed more. That night we got dressed and went to my grandparents house for cocktails and dinner.
I once asked my mother if we could have silver glitter icicles, after seeing them at a friend’s house. The answer was a definite no.
The cousins I only saw once a year were there. My aunt made the same shrimp hors d’oeuvre and served it with the same crackers. My uncle always had a tie to carve the turkey. The tree twinkled with colored lights and ornaments. It felt like the party scene from The Nutcracker.
I’ve always loved Christmas trees and there’s nothing like the smell of a freshly cut evergreen to evoke those memories. Two miles down the road we had the same type of tree flashing away by our own house. I remember unwrapping the decorations as a child and greeting them like old friends. We had beautiful ones that people gave as gifts, and we handmade the ones at school.
I once asked my mother if we could have silver glitter icicles, after seeing them at a friend’s house. The answer was a definite no. I remember a disparaging comment about them getting all over the place.
When my brother had kids, we started driving to his house on Christmas Eve to be with them. Finally, I was able to forgive my sister-in-law for using little white candles on their tree. Marriage is a compromise: I love everything else about her, and she makes an excellent Christmas breakfast. Their house feels very Sugar Plum Fairy.
Imagine then, if you will, my face when my new husband came through the door of our house one day in 2003 and announced that he had bought a Christmas tree. The tree he presented was made of silver glitter. In a box. Which he bought at Urban Outfitters. For $19.99.
He had bought a fake tree.
It appears to be an error, I thought, about whom I have married. Is he a fake three person?
I remember reading that Joan Didion wanted to marry John Gregory Dunne after she visited the family house and found a closet full of pressed organdy cloths. She knew these were her people.
This was the opposite of that.
It is clear that the marriage was doomed. I would use the fake tree as Exhibit A in court arguing about our inevitable divorce.
However, asking for a divorce during the holidays is bad manners. My plan was to survive Christmas with this person I didn’t know and try to be as civil as possible. I could call a lawyer in January.
Unbeknownst to me, my soon-to-be-ex-husband excitedly talked about the tree.
“Isn’t that cool?” he asked. “It’s so 70s! I love it.”
I smiled thinly.
“This way we don’t kill a tree,” he added.
Oh, right, I thought. I tell myself that I care about the environment…until its preservation upsets my delicate sensibilities.
I made a couple of other observations about myself that Christmas.
First: I’m a terrible snob. I think there are two types of people, real vs. fake wood, and real wood people are superior.
Second: I didn’t get bronchitis the first Christmas to remember. I am allergic to many trees and these allergies always manifest as a terrible hacking cough every December. Could it be possible that having an evergreen in the house was the cause? The answer was yes. I haven’t been sick since Christmas.
January rolled around and I decided to forget about the divorce.
I once had a girlfriend who was a real tree person. I remember meeting his parents and knowing they were my type of people. We read the same books, talked about important things and were quite convinced that the state of the world was our responsibility to fix.
Horrible, horrible snobs. And that boyfriend, like me, was also a magician. He disappeared with alarming frequency.
My husband has not disappeared once in 26 years. I can get over the tree.
My third observation: I am wedded to past traditions as if they came down to Moses on tablets. It has taken me a lifetime to discover that clinging to the past is not serving me. I am a slow learner.
The holidays were a happy time in childhood. But every day is not Christmas, and Mum in the scarf and dad in the hat was not my everyday reality. My parents divorced, then my father died.
I tried to keep the early Christmases in amber. I protected them to prove that we had once been happy. How could a fake tree support these memories?
It couldn’t. But it can give me something else just as meaningful.
As my stepsons got older, they started traveling with us. One year we started hanging up the key rings we bought on holidays.
We have so many key rings now that we wear very few other trinkets. When we hang one, we remember the time we went to Hawaii or Paris or Vegas together. If one of us goes somewhere during the year, we like to show off a new key ring before hanging it up.
We find the craziest key rings we can. Somehow I ended up with one shaped like Gorbachev’s head, complete with a birthmark. It’s my personal favorite.
The little boys are now men. At some point in December, they and their partners usually come over. We decorate the silver tree and howl with laughter. I cook dinner and afterwards we exchange gifts.
I no longer have to protect every happy memory by recreating them. We have enough.
So much misery is created during the holiday season by expectations that things will stay exactly the same.
So my final observation is this: Traditions are not just what we do, or eat, or how we decorate. Traditions tell us who we are and what our family values. My family values love without strings and choices.
So much misery is created during the holiday season by expectations that things will stay exactly the same. So after decorating the tree, my husband and I release our grown children into the holiday wilderness, free to go wherever they please. The greatest gift we give them is choice.
Imagine me giving up such a family because of the faux pas of a faux tree.
My therapist, who should be making $10,000 an hour, told me one day, “Observe, don’t judge.”
Today I see my beautiful silver tree, flashing with many colors. It is particularly beautiful, especially when Gorbachev’s bald head catches the light.
But my mother was right. There is tinsel everywhere.