I’m sitting in the darkened room, illuminated only by the glowing lights of a Christmas tree. My Christmas tree. It’s peaceful. And provocative. It soothes me … and evokes melancholy. But, as odd as it might seem, I actually treasure the melancholy. Christmas is joyful but wistful, too. Hopeful but filled with poignant longing.
The tree ornaments are a kind of diary of my life. Happy years and painful years. Good years and not-so-good years. My three sons are each represented by an ornament displaying their “little goober” picture at their first Christmas. And some of the ornaments are handmade by those same three boys.
There’s a Sponge Bob ornament. A Yellow Submarine ornament from the cartoon Beatles movie of the same name. A stuffed, calico hippopotamus. Green and gold Green Bay Packer candy canes. Lots of Santas, in various incarnations.
My favorite Christmas ornament was given to me nearly 40 years ago. It’s a simple Nativity, cast in fragile milk glass. I was always put it deep inside the tree, letting the random, multi-colored lights reveal it even while the branches hide it. This way, to see it, you have to want to see it. You have to pay attention. You have to believe it’s there. And suddenly it emerges and comes to focus, like mystery always does, when sought with ardor, hope and respect.
This is the first year I’ve betrayed an ageless family tradition. To wit, for the first time ever I don’t have a “live” tree. Or so it’s called. An ironic moniker, yes, given that a more apt description would be to call it a “dying tree.” I mean, from the moment you drag the mortally wounded tree into your living room, your house is transformed into a botanical hospice. You can water the tree. Make it both beautiful and comfortable. Give it dignity. But it’s going to die.
Since my earliest memory, my parents would take us down to a local tree lot to buy a cut Christmas tree. The smell of pine, for me, is iconic of Christmas itself. One year, my father acquired a permit to parade out into the forest and cut our own tree. It was cold. But it was a sublime and beautiful adventure.
I passed this tradition along to my children. Until this year. This year, I purchased my very first artificial Christmas tree. The boys are giving me tons of grief about it. But they seem resigned to it and ready to forgive me for this break from hallowed tradition. Conversely, my Native American friend Jeffery will be proud of me when he hears of this. He has for years frowned upon this strange Christian tradition, which of course is not remotely Christian in its origins; rather, pagan. Jeffery calls trees The Standing People and grieves for the living conifers who are asked to sacrifice their lives for two weeks of twinkle and nostalgia in American living rooms.
My motive, however, was not that I suddenly developed a cosmological conscience. Nor did I suddenly develop a soft spot for aboriginal people and their world views. Truth is, I didn’t want to tie an oily, resin dripping pine tree on top of my new Honda Accord, scratching against the paint job. And I didn’t want to pay a delivery charge. And I don’t have friends who drive trucks. So, as my 57th Christmas made its final approach, I broke ranks, cruised over to Target and bought an artificial tree.
It’s beautiful. It’s a perfect illusion. It’s soothing and provocative, just the way I like it.
And the Standing People are safe from me.
And my car’s paint job is spared.
And my children are surviving. Adapting to their father’s sudden whimsy.
It’s quiet in this room. The tree is so beautiful and peaceful. Presents are beginning to gather under its branches.
Life slumbers beneath the ice, cold and darkness of the winter solstice. Love waits — again — to be born anew in the most unlikely places.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.