O Christmas tree, my Christmas tree

For as long as I can remember, I have envisioned the perfect Christmas as a Currier & Ives print with family members brightly clad and faces aglow, trooping off to the snow-mantled forest to cut the tree. That's the way it was when I was a child.

Now we live in a city without snow. Our children, now grown, have never known the Christmas of my childhood - or their father's. He and I were raised in the same mountain community.

Each year, after George and I became parents, our family trooped to the city supermarket lot to select a tree. I was often tempted to buy cotton batting to use for snow.

But no one, of course, wanted artificial snow, and I continued to dream of a perfectly formed tree, possibly with crystal icicles and hung with gold ornaments.

Equally strong was the agreement between George and me that Christmas is for children, and they should be permitted to do their own thing with the tree.

Selecting and decorating it were always high points in the season. Our children seemed to have had a more highly developed regard for individual rights and opinions than for peace and Christmas spirit, however.

Never in my memory was there agreement among them from the time the first two were toddlers through the days when all five were having their individual say.

But now our tree-trimmers have left home, married, and three are now refereeing their children's tree-decorating skills in faraway cities. All of them will visit us this year, but none will arrive in time to advise or argue over tree decorations.

I was within sight of my coveted goal. I would decorate the tree myself - all by myself - in blessed peace. Listening to Handel's "Messiah" in the background, I would take my time.

I would start with the lights. Next, the glistening golden balls, and not a strand of tinsel. There would be no birds' nests, construction-paper stars, or plastic Santas from the Dollar Store.

When the kids were young, George never had to do more than put the tree in its stand and set it in the living room corner. Except for an occasional sigh over the kids' demands and countermands, he had always left them to their own devices for decorating the tree.

This year I wanted to set the tree on a table in front of the window where it could be seen from the street.

"People on the street won't have to fight their way around it," George complained. It was true that with the children and grandchildren arriving Christmas Day, standing room would be at a premium.

Anyway, the decorations were the important part, and I had planned to make the tree a true work of art this year.

I took the Christmas box down from the shelf but found only the red balls from the year our youngest created an all-red Christmas. Had I put the gold ones in another box?

At the back of the shelf was a tattered carton marked "Crissmuss" in child-inscribed crayon. I carried it to the table for closer examination. Surely we had more gold balls. I would need to make a trip to the store - for a dozen, at least. Sorting through the dilapidated carton, I found ornaments the children had made.

Past Christmases paraded before me as I examined each piece. There were styrofoam shapes from the year I encouraged each child to create as many decorative balls as his patience - and mine - would permit. Some were bedecked with ribbon; others with sequins, glitter, and beads affixed with liberal latherings of glue.

Here also were reminders of the year we crushed tissue paper into roughly rounded balls and equipped each with thread hangers.

I cautioned myself as I held each ornament and remembered its maker. Don't go sentimental, I thought. This year is yours! Go get the new gold balls!

I folded the lid over the carton and went to get my purse for the trip to town. Then I caught sight of a movement near the tree.

It was George. Under one arm he held a large plastic bag of cotton balls. His fingers were gently pulling at a cotton wad.

"What in the world are you doing?" I asked.

"I thought it would look good to have snow on the branches - you know, the way we used to see it back home."

He had pulled the cotton balls into little strips.

Already, his "snow" lay on several branches, and if I didn't stop him, the whole tree would look as if it had come wrapped in an old quilt that was losing its batting.

His face was a picture of creative genius at work.

I looked over at the box of homemade ornaments I had just resealed.

Maybe this Christmas, the first in many that we would all be together again, would be the right time to use the children's old ornaments, enhanced by their father's snow.

After all, Christmas is for children - of any age.

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