I’m sure that Christmas was a favorite holiday when I was a child. Before the bitter years of high school, Christmas promised joy. During college and my years of bachlerhood Christmas became “the holidays”; a period of little or no work and much revelry.
Enter the boarders. Creating the unalloyed joy that I dimly remember takes one hell of a lot of effort. Lucky for me and the boys, the boss takes on much of that load. One of her jobs this year involved fetching the tree.
Our first tree sits in the corner of our living room for a few weeks starting in early December. This date marks the beginning of the child behavior cliff. The boarders have never bought into the idea that their actions are correlated with loot intake. They have seen the evidence: they always behave like semi-contained tornadoes and yet their yield is ample. We trim this first tree with a few strings of lights and a dozen ornaments from some organization associated with the White House. I have no idea why, but my mother gives these to us every year and they are our only decorations. So, we have a Christmas tree strung with pictures of the white house.
This tree never comes to fruition, so to speak; no gifts are placed under it. We spend Christmas Day at the in-laws’ house down the road and they have their own tree. After the pre-pubescent bacchanal of the morning, the boss and I head home to get ready to drive to my parents’ house. Our house gets purged of many things including tree number one. I slink out of the house shortly after noon on Christmas day with the tree over my shoulder and throw it on the brush pile.
He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch. That’s Dr. Grinch if you’re nasty.
My parents hold “Christmas” a few days after the day itself as that’s when all of the siblings and associated grand-children can gather. On Boxing Day we head north to New Hampshire for a few days of high tension parenting. My children’s energy doesn’t submit easily to the confinement imposed by frigid temperatures, nice furniture and fine crystal.
But in New Hampshire we get the one Christmas tree that I actually like. My family heads out into the woods with a saw and a sled for some child or other. We hunt down a likely looking candidate and slaughter it. Our little tree never looks anything like the commercial product: the intermodal distance is large and the species is wrong. It feels like a real pagan tradition though: we tromp into the woods in the thin northern light, emerge with wooden idol held high, and festoon it with the bric-a-brac of many years of child rearing. Last year we followed this up with a huge bonfire in a clearing.
Christmas trees are floating signifiers as Claude Levi-Strauss put it. The symbol is concrete, yet the referent is not. Do they signify life in the darkest part of winter? I have a hard time not seeing a life cut-short. Not a sentient life, but a life. Nevertheless, as a tradition, it’s a good one: it gives a focus to the holiday, it smells good, and gives a family the chance to work together on a project. That probably does more good than the rest of the holiday.