Epiphany

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It’s just after midnight on January 6, 2004
. Yawning, feverish and splayed on the sofa, I blow my nose and avert my eyes from the cheery guest standing across from me. She’s tall, beautiful, and maddeningly sparkly. Droning on about Christmases past, she’s been talking my ear off for weeks now. She drinks like a fish and is beginning to smell a bit off. Sniff, sniff. This old fish has really been around long enough. Maybe tomorrow, if I feel better, I’ll pack her up and escort her out—to the trash. It’s time to get rid of this year’s Christmas tree.

In other years, I loved my Christmas tree, even felt sad about sending it to the wood chipper. So why does this year’s offering grate so? It’s a 6-foot noble fir, like always: full, well-shaped, and still mostly green. It’s barely dropped a needle, unlike the ignominious trees of my 60’s childhood Christmases. My parents always ended up with some twelve-dollar Charlie Brown special with an S-shaped trunk or a forked top or a bunch of branches missing in back, dragged in a few days before the event. In years when a baby was crawling around, it perched on a card table inside a playpen. So tacky. But at least we didn’t give up and go artificial like our neighbors, whose silver tree with its six silver balls showed pink, then blue, then green, then yellow under a rotating color wheel in their front window.

Now that’s cheesy.

In the battle between real and artificial tree enthusiasts, my mother’s now gone over to the dark side, citing asthma problems with real trees. Her fake tree is up and decorated in a mere two hours the day after Thanksgiving: no mess, no fuss. But Peter and I are still purists, wanting only the real item. Which takes hours and hours to launch and much, much tending.

And as to decorations, the less planning the better. Department store monochrome confections and Good Housekeeping color-coordinated tree themes be damned. No mauve and gray satin balls and bows on my Noel branch. No nautical trees full of ships and shells. No pure white light strands to indicate the decorator’s beige life. And those boring homespun numbers with only wood-and-hemp rocking horses and dolls and not a sparkle in sight? Puh-lease! It’s dark in here. Let there be light. But don’t go nuts with flashing, chasing lights and fake snow. Just give me a fancy-free, plump green tree full of a personally gathered assortment of shiny and whimsical decorations and some multi-colored lights—those tiny twinkle lights, the ones that replaced the big, hot ones that my mother always promised would start a fire.

My ornaments are stored in a dozen diaper boxes and would easily cover three or four trees. The blown glass ones remind me of the old glass ornaments of my childhood, inherited from my mother’s stylish Aunt Clara. Carefully gleaned at half-price after-Christmas sales, they include a Christopher Radko Santa with pink cheeks, a red chili pepper, a pickle, a gold beehive, a tall wise man, a frog on a snowball, purple grapes from Fresno, Dorothy’s red slippers, Mickey Mouse, and King Tut’s mask. Only a couple of the dull, cracked originals still remain from Mom’s ancient glass stash. Ghosts of Christmas 1937.

My non-glass items include Clara, the Nutcracker Prince, fairies, elves, wooden soldiers, rocking horses, teddy bears, red apples and bows, baby’s first Christmas balls and gap-toothed kindergarten photos in gold-sprayed macaroni frames. Four Carmen Mirandas, three silver ladies, two fuchsia angels, and a bunch of Peruvian peasants. They strike mysterious poses for display when we’re up, but we suspect they rattle the presents after we go to bed. I’ve tried to add some modern boy toys from my kids, but Legos are too boxy and plastic and let’s face it: submarines, superheroes, and emergency vehicles call for action, not exhibition.

So this tree, like all her predecessors, is a perfect colorful jumble topped by a twelve-inch Christmas doll, whose red velvet and gold lame ensemble with its fur-trimmed cape and hat make her a perfect Regency romance heroine, ready to be captured by the evil duke at the Christmas ball and then rescued by the duke’s handsome and stalwart brother.

But despite their fantasy looks, for several years now, our noble fir house guests in December have seemed more and more irritating, and this one is getting on my nerves something fierce. Lovely they may be, but they’re also boring as hell. They only want to talk about life before Nixon for several weeks every winter. It’s like watching Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn trying to bring up baby all December. Each tree starts out all gaudy and fun as she gets dressed all twittery and hopeful, and ends up weeks later looking too gaudy and haggard like an old broad who never got out of the chorus line. But a Christmas tree is supposed to be gaudy, right? It’s meant to light up the longest winter nights, a symbol of hope for a brighter future.

Well, she tried.

In this tiny condominium, the kids, their computers, and their sports equipment take up more and more room each year, leaving less for Ms. Tree. Don’t tell my mother, but I’ve come to resent giving up my living space to this garish fantasy beast for most of my hunker-down-and-read weather. And yet, every second weekend in December, I go along with the big, fat choice. No Charlie Brown trees here. No poor crooked runts or trees with big gaps that need good homes. How could I use all my ornaments on a smaller or thinner tree? Consumer choices of Christmas past haunt Christmas present.

But the space problem is minor. The real problem is time. Christmas is terribly demanding for women in my family. All my life, my mother had her shopping done in August and addressed her cards in October, so she was ready for the baking and giving marathon in December. But I have my limits. I just refuse to mix orange and black with red and green. Instead, I hit the ground shopping after Thanksgiving, just when I need extra time to finish my semester and hand in grades. I spend the drive home from Turkey Day writing a witty letter, and weeks after that sending cards with letter and family picture to the whole world.

And then there’s the giant time suck of Ms. Tree. This cooperative family masterpiece swallows huge chunks of the busiest month of the year. It takes hours to choose it, net it, pay for it, drag it to the car, tie it on and schlep it home, while pleading with giggling kids not to make tunnels through the stacks of unsold trees at Target and to get off the car roof. There’s a day for it to soak in the yard and get rained on. An hour trip to the storage facility for the decorations. A lifetime of loud swearing from the back yard as my husband cuts off the trunk so it will fit in the stand. A tense hour putting the thing up with both of us holding it, so we can’t see that it’s listing fifteen degrees south. Then another hour tightening and loosening tree stand bolts and finding Advil for our aching backs. Another trip to the storage facility for the other tree stand. A year of angst hunting high and low for the extension cord. Back to Target for a new extension cord. They don’t have one, so there’s a thirty-minute wait in line at K-Mart. Twenty minutes of draping the lights under severe criticism. An eon of ornament unveiling and fights about whether Child B is old enough to hang the glass ones, since I’ve given Child A permission. Sweeping up dropped glass ornaments takes only enough time for a baby to put one in his mouth. Fishing broken ornament pieces and hooks out of a baby’s mouth: ten seconds, plus two hours of heart palpitations. Vacuuming needles, hunting the tree skirt, and finding three extension cords at the bottom of an ornament box: who knows how long? The tree is now in front of the clock.

Obligatory is the midnight trek downstairs to find the tree’s gone dry because in all the fuss we forgot to add water to the stand. In years with hot, dry Santa Ana winds, the tree vies with sick children for its own humidifier.

Then once the tree is up and adorned, I have no time to look at it in the cook-decorate-buy-wrap-send-bake-attend-host-carol whirl. Just when I think I’m done, around the 21st, comes the demand for thirty-six last-minute cream-puffs from school and the hunt for an (inoffensive) white elephant for an exchange. A twelfth of my year is tithed to Christmas, and about a third of that goes to the tree, which I then ignore and resent. Given back that time, I might write my Great American novel or save a whale. Just about every November 27th, I feel a secret urge to escape the whole thing and run off to Tibet. Or do they decorate trees there as well? Maybe the moon, then.

Pop psychologists tell us to simplify our lives. Complex lives lead to stress, and stress hormones lead to immune deficiency, resulting in fifty extra pounds, a lack of sex, or a long, slow death, whichever scares you most. So I reviewed my List of Must-Dos for December, hoping to simplify Christmas this year: Forget the cards? Yeah, and lose all my friends. No presents? Kid revolution. No cookies? No bribes for the husband. Fake tree? Riiiiight. No tree? Sounds like bliss.

Instead, I settled for not reading the old Christmas picture books. My beloved childhood stories in The Animals’ Merry Christmas and The Tall Book of Christmas told of woodland Christmases, where squirrels in coats decorate forest trees with berries and nuts and happy birds provided the carols. But “The Singing Christmas Tree” no longer flies with the 12-year-old who’s into Sim dates and Orc battles or the 9-year-old who likes his superheroes best when they outwit the school principal in extra cottony underwear. Yet, my tree nags me daily to read her these tales, like Lucy asking Ricky for a chance on stage.

So this year, I found myself avoiding the overly demanding tree. I graded papers in the kitchen, wore sunglasses to avoid the annoying sparkle, and shopped more, all to keep out of its piney little way. See, I don’t want to discuss 1965 with her any more. The truth is, I might just fall to pieces if I realize how much things have changed since the sweet, old Christmases of crooked trunks and shiny 1937 ornaments. The ones where my sisters and I made cutout cookies while we watched White Christmas and my brother stole wads of cookie dough and ran off laughing. The time we all colored our own advent calendars and cut the pictures out of old Christmas cards to put under the flaps. The years the snow drifted up to the roof of our Indiana home and we had to help my brother deliver his newspapers in hip-deep icy white. And the Christmas Eve Dad stayed up late and wrote “TO DAD” on all the present tags as a joke. Mom was furious.

My brother’s been dead of cancer since 1987. Dad’s now in residential care for Alzheimer’s. He’s lonely and cries a lot. He’s violent. He wants to go home. Mom didn’t dare bring him home for Christmas for fear he’d never go back to his care place. Family members blame each other for Dad’s illness and hesitate to visit. Sometimes, Dad’s on a strict no-junk-food regimen for his colitis. Sometimes, he gets French fries and Coke.

I, the middle child, feel like the fat lady in the family circus, riding a bicycle on the high wire and trying to balance everyone else and their crazy-ass feelings on her shoulders. While smiling. Or maybe I want to be Santa and get everyone the right gift.

Which is impossible. Right?

Everyone has their Christmas downers, so I shouldn’t whine. It’s just that this tree makes it all seem worse. The fantasy world it wants me to look back at every day just seems so false. It didn’t come true. We didn’t live the sparkly happily ever after that it promised. But this damned tree is like some forever-smiling Yuletide beauty queen, Mary Ann Mobley all glamour and saccharine in a red pillbox hat and green pumps. Call her Miss Tannenbaum 2003. What a looker. Did you see her giant baubles? Do you think they’re real?

And she’s stretched the limits of common courtesy. A good guest really should help with the chores. But she didn’t even fulfill her basic Christmas duty. We went to Mom’s for the big day, so this tree never even presided over a present opening. The only real gathering around this tree was the New Year’s six-kid sleepover, when her delicate branches hindered the boys from having a good pillow fight. Call her “Miss Priss 2003”.

Her colors were dazzling, but I now see that every twinkle was just a bid for another cookie-baking session and twenty more Christmas cards-a-writing. Twinkle-twinkle, and we toted that barge, lifted that bale, wrapped packages ‘til midnight and stood in line for an hour to send that mail.

And on top of that, this aging beauty queen oh-so-charmingly proclaimed an ideal era that will never again exist, not since AIDS, 9-1-01, insidious video games, reality TV, nipple piercings, Florida-decided elections, blue M&M’s, the media circus, rampant spam, and giant school budget cuts. Not since the U.S. created wars in the name of peace. Maybe that ideal age never really did exist, or maybe it only happened for five minutes in a Des Moines suburb in 1950, but I still feel cheated by this damn tree’s blatant misleading advertising.

Or maybe it’s more sinister than that. The tight deadline and a big, fat price tag of Christmas makes me wonder if this tree’s really a double agent, in league with the retailers. We’ve all seen her cousins ruling Macy’s and Penney’s from September to New Year’s. That whole Tannenbaum family is very powerful, luring us to shop until we drop. Think about it. They just appear all shiny one day, and suddenly we are their minions.

Then, after I spent my wad and the wads of all my future grandchildren, Miss Tannenbaum 2003 wanted my last ounce of energy, my last shred of politeness. I could almost hear her coo, “Don’t forget to share your cookies and be nice to everyone.” Fine. We traveled three hundred miles to be with the folks. We took Dad out for a Christmas Eve ride to Christmas Tree Lane. We played games with him for hours, feasted with Mom, labored over coffee cake, listened to Tchaikovsky spin that fairy for the millionth time, and ate cookies ‘til we dropped. And Miss Tannenbaum didn’t even apologize for botching my diet. Slave-driving Girl Scout.

I know it’s naïve of me, but I guess I got taken in by her promises. Her fullness and profusion of ornaments promised abundance and hope, which I thought I had, until I noticed our approaching retirement with two kids’ worth of college tuition to pay and my octogenarian parents who may expensively outlive their hard-won savings. Will our own elder care be even more expensive? Or will our generation end up aging in inflatable pre-fab nursing home shacks by the freeway, tended by coyotes?

This sneaky tree has no answer for this except to reprise her promise of a joyful December and a beautiful shining new year full of candles and old stories and elf myths and pond skaters and snow. Except there’s no snow in Southern California. No shoveling, no snow days, no fat white men on lawns, no forts or stacks of balls or getting hit by a wet one. Ice skating happens in rinks. The Pacific Ocean is as cold as it gets.

And candles sound nice, but my husband collects printed matter and the kids are pyromaniacs.

On the other hand, I did see old stories as I drifted off in front of the TV. Clarence got his wings again when I woke up. And we did have an elf myth in a theater near us: Lord of the Rings III. But not even a mild curiosity about the final fate of the ring (Could it end up in another hobbit’s pocketses? Could it end up in Gandolf’s nose?) could induce me to sit through three more hours of loud, gory Orc battles. The movie Elf was just silly. I wish singing loudly really could save Christmas. Or just save my dad.

Unfortunately, I need a different myth now, one that gently explains the disintegration of parents and shows the best way to care for them and their finances, short of putting them on an ice floe and watching them drift away. I’d always thought I’d welcome my folks into my home when they got old, like Uncle Jake hosted Grandma. But I live far from their home and friends. Our condo has only upstairs bedrooms, not easily accessed by old folks. And we’re already packed in tight like so many tetchy bats. There is no room here for my father’s giant need and changed personality, his “helpful” household purges and mercurial temper. Mom could never stand the loud, burping and farting adolescent boys that gather around our household computer, the anti-drug, from morning until night. She’d be miserable in my home, Boys R Us.

Yet the tree keeps harping on me to make my parents’ life sparkle. I dream of a larger house where I could keep them, a bigger pumpkin shell with a wing for them. Pumpkins cost their weight in gold, though, and this tree just glitters when asked how to afford one.

With presents and cookies dispatched, I normally let my trees stay up until January so I can enjoy the one remnant of my month of toil and sacrifice. But this year’s dogged pageant contestant is a full-page ad for a sale that’s already over. She keeps reviewing her talent competition, relentlessly flashing Christmas symbols at us, trying to justify her continued presence in our home. Peter assumes she needs water, but I see it as a less than subtle ploy to get us to take her picture again.

My new year is not shiny. I’m worried about the folks, and this tree is not helping. Her promises are bogus, her myths are inadequate, and she’s impolite, setting up camp in my living room for a whole month.

So, how does this lazy, conspiring, double-crossing nag respond to my accusations? She is silent. She is sequined. Light, glitter, beauty, sparkle, hope, twinkle, and color are still her only vocabulary. She’s sure I can figure out a way to cope from her cheery message alone. But the old girl’s drooping and tinder dry, soon to be a fire hazard. Yay! An excuse to get rid of her! Except that carefully stowing all those fragile ornaments is a huge task. For a week now, I’ve been feverish and achy, unable to face that inevitable denuding chore, that last ten pounds of Christmas drudgery.

Wait. Could Christmas trees be in league with cold germs? To lengthen their pitiful lives by a few lousy days, would they really make us sick? Oh, my God! This could explain the annual flu epidemic. Alert the CDC! Tell the tabloids! Do the research! I see it all clearly now, the whole picture—collusion between trees, germs, and retailers. Oh, this is big. And I have proof: In 1997, I tended sick kids all January while Peter ran around helping his ill parents. For days, my kids had a high fever and cough, swilling Gatorade. Then Peter and I got it and were beached side by side on the bed, cooking at 103°. And our tree got to stay up until February!

February! No way! This damned tree’s got to go now! No more of her wheedling and conniving! It’s her or me! But I’m achy and snorty and drunk on Nyquil. I can barely stand up, much less slave over packing boxes. Maybe I could hire a service. Would professional tree un-decorators be under “T” or “U” in the phone book? Or maybe I’ll just haul this evil spy to the trash as is, tiara and all. Who needs all those ornaments?

Oh. My. God. I’ve just this minute realized the true extent of Miss Tannenbaum 2003’s cunning and brilliance. With my illness, she’s not only delayed her demise, but gotten me to spend days writing this piece all about her, a piece which will distinguish her from all other trees AND endure long after she’s mulch. Dang, she’s good.

As I struggle to a stand and start grabbing at ornaments, I wonder: Why do I do this every year? What allegiance do I have toward evergreens that lie like rugs and collude with germs and Macy’s and threaten us all with diabetes?

Blame it on Peter. He’s lost without the Yule traditions of his European ancestors. In the Old World, buildings are ancient. You can see where you came from. But here in the U.S., only a few things connect our family to the distant past: a name, a few traditional recipes, really big feet, and a yearly Christmas tree. And then there are the kids, thoroughly brainwashed by Miss T. and her media conspirators. Wouldn’t the boys feel deprived without a Christmas tree? The tree is the really big given of Christmas everywhere. From Hoboken to Dubai to Vladivostok, everybody has one, irrespective of creed. From Macy’s to Galleries Lafayette to Matsuzakaya to the foyer of Dad’s assisted living home there are tinseled ladies of fir in all the windows.

I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on old Miss Tannenbaum 2003. It’s not really her. It’s me. I’m the one who needs a new take on things. She’s the reigning queen, after all, and her sisters have been sparkly and cute year after year only because of my retro taste, patterned after Mom’s. Over the years, I’ve chosen each tree and dressed her, like a big, resiny green Barbie. And if you asked Barbie how to cope with aging relatives or economic woes, she’d probably do no better than this tree, unless she used a lifeline to call Midge or Skipper.

A hint of pine sap somehow bypasses my stuffed up nose and reminds me that until she came to boss me around, this tree lived outdoors, a real, live home for creatures, a piece of God’s work, a quiet messenger of our connection with nature and the cycle of our year. Yes, trees are a universal symbol of life and growth, peace and nature, family. Ask Joyce Kilmer. They give us oxygen and use our carbon dioxide, literally allowing us to live. We don’t call them “noble firs” for nothing. In fact, sacred trees exist all over the globe: the Buddhist bo tree, the Hawaiian ohia, the Chinese gingko. One might stretch this idea of arboreal holiness to the Christmas tannenbaum—like a sort of cut, dried, and dying sacred tree with fancy, irrelevant stuff all over it, disposable to fit our consumer society.

Yeah, pull the other one. I bet if I gave my computer-dazed kids some new video games in November and didn’t mention Christmas until the 24th of December, they might forget the whole tree thing and settle for a few necklaces strewn on a potted plant. To heck with family tradition about stupid, piney relics.

Then, glass pickle in hand, I sink back down on the couch as if pushed, realizing that this particular year, I missed an important tradition: Christmas Eve tree communion. I normally take a few minutes on the 24th to sit and commune with my tree when she’s all dressed up in the dark with all her presents around. Silent, mysterious, knowing, reflecting a sea of shiny wrap in glass balls, the tree commands the house with a regal air for that one magic night, the night of her highest power. Releasing the aroma of long-ago Christmases of the Black Forest, she always glows with hopes and dreams thought out over long years on a forest floor. She recalls past holidays, parties and cheer, and anticipates the Big Day, the present opening, the cheerful cooking and eating, the big nap, the warm family gathering.

But this year, I forgot to take my moment.

Until now. Suddenly, in my dark living room on January 6th, like a magi’s gift, all those old quiet Christmas Eve moments appear to me at once. As if there were a hall of mirrors reflecting Miss Tannenbaum 2003 in each other, I see hundreds of glowing trees, each from its own year. Breathless, I watch them all sparkle: Trees from my grandmother’s time, and my mother’s. The puny one from ’72 with all Dad’s presents. And my sister’s majestic twelve-foot spruce from ‘78. I don’t dare blink as the dazzling sight unfolds.

Then I spy it: The poor tree with really bad scoliosis from the year money was super tight: 1966. Man. If that S-shaped thing can take its place in this amazing lineup, there may be hope for us all yet. Maybe my folks are on the right path already. Maybe life isn’t as bad as they say. Maybe this was this tree’s message all along and I’ve been using the wrong decoder ring. I feel a breath of peace fill my being for the first time in ages.

Then, among the images, I see a vision of Miss Tannenbaum ’04, my next year’s tree. In fake blue fir, decorated by my wild testosterone crew, she’s hung with CD-ROMs, neon squirt guns, flashlights, Lego Bionicles, yo-yos, Magic cards, baseball caps, pretzels, and Boy Scout patches. Add something edgy, maybe a metal dog leash, as a garland. On the 26th, she’ll collapse and stow in a box in ten minutes. But for all of December, she’ll proudly rule the carport on her own red carpet remnant. In her branches are envelopes labeled: Affordable, Loving Care for Aging Folks; Distraction for Unhappy Relatives; New Expanded Digs for the Family; Twenty Hugs and a Book Contract for You

DO NOT OPEN UNTIL DEC. 25.

Twinkle.

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