The Motherlode: The Odyssey of the Christmas tree
So ’tis the season. OMG. SOS.
Suddenly my Christmas to-do list is somewhere north of the North Pole, but my biggest problem is the constant, ubiquitous and hellish pressure saying, “You better get this right. It’s tradition!”
It all culminates and intensifies with buying and setting up the Christmas tree, which for many of us is when madness sets in. I turn into some kind of Christmas tree fanatic. Everything needs to be a certain way “as per tradition.”
It’s Dad’s fault. He was a stickler for Christmas tradition. Our mantelpiece was an exact replica of his childhood Chappaqua hearth, and things had to go down a certain way come “Fa La La” season. The purchase of the tree was epic.
When I was little, my parents bought our tree at a church a few blocks from our brownstone in Brooklyn. Our living room had 12-foot ceilings, so our tree was always giant — like a redwood. We had to climb ladders to decorate it — like they do in the “Nutcracker” ballet at Lincoln Center, amid the dazzling set that apparently hasn’t changed since Tchaikovsky. Only our tree didn’t rise out of a trapdoor, we had no mouse king or sugarplum fairy, and no nutcracker-come-to-life (who looks like that creepy, bike-riding puppet in the movie “Saw,” but that’s another story.)
Later, Dad upgraded our tradition by literally chopping down a tree in the Adirondacks. He loved the idea of our family trundling into the snowy forest, even though it usually ended up with my brothers not talking to each other, our cocker spaniel Muffy getting lost, and a Christmas tree with a very uneven stump. We won’t talk about the time our tree almost fell off the car as we drove down the Taconic Parkway.
But Dad learned how to trim the stump, and the tree survived its near death on the Taconic. Tradition changed, and we all adapted.
But tradition took another swerve when I married into a Modern Orthodox Jewish family.
My husband, Ian, and I bought our tree at the Brooklyn Terminal market, which was a notable downgrade from the Adirondacks. My brother and my parents joined us, as did the gigantic robotic Santa Claus with a Brooklyn accent.
But once we hauled the tree back to our apartment, all bets were off. The fact that Ian didn’t know what he was doing tree-wise and was totally tradition-less put him at a distinct disadvantage. I slyly asked him to put away all the ornaments and throw out the tree that first year, while I traveled to Europe for work. I warned him to move fast or the tree would dry up and we would be vacuuming pine needles for weeks. Sorta true.
“You know, that was really, really depressing,” Ian told me when I returned. He didn’t know about the packing-up-the-Christmas-tree blues. He also didn’t know that is why I asked him to do it.
After we moved to Greenwich, we faced another transition. Ian’s college friends invited us to chop down a tree at Maple Row Tree Farm. It had reindeer, hot chocolate, lots of fresh holly and a very angry-looking bull (which was never explained). It was Connecticut bucolic at its best.
“I will be the one handling the saw,” Ian informed me as we trundled off to find our tree. When our friends saw us arguing over a handsaw — with a baby, a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old in tow — they panicked.
“We will cut the tree and pack it up for you,” they told us.
We loved that tree — even the uneven stump. My Dad had learned to even the stump, but Ian had the saw now, and it was a mess. Words were exchanged, and once again it didn’t end well for Ian.
“I hate your Christmas tree issues Claire!” he shouted.
But soon we got into a new family Christmas tree groove, devolving from Maple Row Tree Farm to Costco. But we still decorate with good cheer, hanging the kids’ handmade ornaments with fanfare and nostalgia. It is now one of Ian’s favorite traditions.
But we face a challenge yet again this year. Our live-in babysitter Jesse felt compelled to share his Christmas tree tradition. Jesse is great, but he is a millennial — if you know what I mean.
“You don’t understand. My tree is an annual work of art. It’s like a tribute to my childhood decorated entirely with my old toys,” Jesse explained.
There were original “Jurassic Park” action figures, complete with a diorama somehow mounted on the boughs depicting the T-Rex throwing a red and green Ford Explorer off a cliff, from the 1993 Spielberg film. Oh, it doesn’t end there: it also featured Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Megazord, a Lego DeLorean from “Back to The Future,” baseball cards depicting the cast of “The Sandlot,” a Game Boy Color and an Elf-on-the-Shelf at the top.
To make matters worse, it was a fake tree.
“We can put it in your living room,” Jesse offered, brimming with pride.
Ah, no. When I suggested it go in his room in the basement, Jesse looked like he was going to cry. The whole thing ended up with Ian and me yelling at him about the importance of tradition, as he yelled the exact same things back at us. It was a mess.
So Jesse put up his fake tree in the basement and plugged in the built-in tree lights surrounded by all the 1990s toy ornaments. And it was beautiful.
“Gosh, look at that,” I admitted, as he watched me proudly.
“I told you,” he said, somewhat ruining the moment, millennial style.
My kid’s love Jesse’s tree. They visit it daily like it’s a shrine. So does Ian. Even I love the tree, although the Megazord freaks me out.
The coolest part is how Christmas spirit prevails, despite tradition changes, downgrades, upgrades and millennial entitlement. Once the tree lights are plugged in, a hush falls over all of us and we stand in awe. Even in the basement.
Claire Tisne Haft is a former publishing and film executive, raising her family in Greenwich while working on a freelance basis on books and films.