You see it time and again in the movies and on television. Unless it’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or a quirky down-on-your-luck comedy, the “perfect” holiday is always matched by the “perfect” Christmas tree. Just ask Clark W. Griswold from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. He wouldn’t dream of hosting the family holiday without one.
Whether the tree is the star of the show or simply set in the background, it is full and lush. The ornaments are evenly spaced and each strand of tinsel is placed just so. Either an angel sits on top to watch over you with regal elegance or a star lights the room with a peaceful glow.
In the real world, the tree has a bald spot you turn to face the wall. Your dog drinks water from the tree base, your cat jumps into the tree as if it were catnip, and at least two “non-blinking” lights blink out of sync on one side.
“One light goes out, they all go out!” — Bob Rivers, The Twelve Pains of Christmas
Whether you have a live tree or an artificial one, for so many of us, a tree embodies the essence of the holiday. It shouldn’t matter if the tree is “perfect” or not. It is about what that tree represents.
My dad knew that. So it is no surprise he took it to extremes that one year.
I am not saying my dad was Clark W. Griswold but then again, maybe he was.
Clark went into the woods to find the biggest and best Christmas tree he could find. It was not enough to go to the lots where trees had already been cut down with price tags hanging on fir branches. Forget about going to the tree farms where you could pick one out yourself and have someone cut it down for you. No, Clark wanted to find a tree that captured the imagination, not to mention one that was free.
Why not go into the woods and pull one out by the roots?
Okay, okay. It was a comedy and Clark forgot to bring any tools to chop it down. Not an ax, not a chainsaw, not even a knife. There is no way Clark could pull out a 40-foot tree out by the roots, but hey, it’s funny!
My dad may not have pulled his own tree out by the roots, but he sure did find us a tree off the side of the road. Way, way, way off the side of the road, if you know what I mean.
In a year my parents struggled to make ends meet, we still decorated a Christmas tree. It had bald spots and sappy branches, maybe even an old nest or two, but it was our version of perfect.
My dad brought us Christmas, after all.
We never found out where my dad got that Christmas tree and we never asked. What we did know was that my dad had a chainsaw in his work van, and for the first time ever, he didn’t let us tag along to pick out the tree. The look of shock on my mother’s face when he carried the tree into the house. Let’s just say that told us all we needed to know.
What family doesn’t have a secret or two?
We may not have always gotten what we wanted when we were young, but my parents always managed to get what we needed. My sister, brother, and I were lucky that way. We never went hungry, we had a roof over our heads, and we always celebrated Christmas together.
Sure, like every kid, we hoped for presents, but unlike most kids, we were always satisfied with whatever we got. When you do not have a lot, you learn to appreciate things more.
It was the time together that mattered most. Sorting through the ornaments, each one attached to its own memory. Stringing up cranberries and popcorn to make garland, even if the popcorn crumbled to become an instant dog treat. Singing holiday songs, including my dad’s all-time favorite Feliz Navidad, in out of tune voices. Always, of course, debating who would climb the ladder to place the star on top of the tree that year.
Decorating the Christmas tree meant together time, time to put the distractions of the world on hold and focus in on each other. There is no greater peace than that. That is the only perfection that exists. If only that feeling could last throughout the year.