Like many children, I always found Christmas to be one of the most exciting times of the year when I was growing up. The decorations and lights, the expectations of gifts I’d been dreaming about for months, the food and candy, and the time with family was always very fun and exciting. Our family was small, so celebrations around Christmas typically only involved my grandparents on my mother’s side, my mother, my aunt and me. That might suggest that Christmas would be a peaceful and simple affair, but that typically wasn’t the case. There always seemed to be some “drama” to erupt around Christmas-time, and often the drama revolved around our Christmas tree.
My grandparents had farmland and forested property near their home, so my grandfather insisted on always cutting down our tree from what he could find on the land. He hated spending money on things he could do himself, so there was never any discussion of buying a nice, properly-shaped or modestly-sized tree. No, he would spend weeks – typically during hunting season – scouting around for the “perfect” tree to bring home when the time was right, typically a week or two before Christmas. I would always wait at home eager to see his jeep lights pull up on the night I knew he’d be bringing home the tree, even if I knew it meant hours if not days of struggle would follow – and I’d generally be the one primarily recruited into joining the fight.
Because to my grandfather, the “best” Christmas tree usually meant the “biggest.” I remember at least several years of struggling with oversized trees that smashed up against the ceiling of our foyer or needed their tops trimmed off in order to stand upright. Or ones that had a trunk too thick to fit inside our Christmas tree stand and would require hours on his part struggling to thin it down enough to fit.
Once we finally got our Christmas tree to stand upright, it was typically quite lopsided. My grandfather never seemed to pick a tree that had good symmetry. So our next task was to keep shuffling the tree around in its stand, sliding books of different thicknesses under one leg of the tree stand or another, trying to get it to look its best. This task was not an easy one, either, but eventually we’d decide we’d done our best and move on – even if there was a giant gaping hole near the front of the tree. That would just get overfilled with ornaments later on.
Next came my least favorite part of setting up the Christmas tree: the lights. Again, my grandfather hated spending money, even a few dollars on a new set of lights no matter what bad shape our old strands were in (and some of them were very, very old and very, very bad.) We had boxes upon boxes of old Christmas tree lights that would get dragged down from the attic every year, and very carefully laid out one at a time so they could be tested and inspected. It was rare we found a strand in good working order. These were the old-style lights where if one bulb on the strand was out, a whole section of lights would not work. We would have to try each bulb, or shuffle bulbs from one strand to another, to try to get as many as possible working. There was no style or color-theme to our lights; we used whatever worked one year to the next. A strand of delicate two-tone blinking lights would be followed by oversized multi-colored bulbs, followed by a strand of white crystal lights – anything to cover the enormous bulk of the tree while not electrocuting ourselves on the bad, old frayed wires.
By this point we were both always very exhausted, cranky, and ready to be done with the tree! My grandfather would be finished at that point, leaving the rest of the decorations – garlands and ornaments – up to the rest of the family. We’d typically wait until the everyone was home to begin that part of the project, and end up with a very over-decorated, uncoordinated, overly-large, unbalanced and really rather ugly Christmas tree. But it was still our Christmas tree, and if it made us laugh instead of “ooh” and “ah” in appreciation, well, that was just the way things would have to be.