Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Dec 19 2012 03:00 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: O Christmas tree, thy leaves - and traditions - are so unchanging

By The Bakersfield Californian

Once upon a time there was a house with a Christmas tree in it. Or once upon many times, actually, because every Christmas tree in every house around the world tells its own story. When you gaze upon the evergreen in your home, have you ever considered what your Christmas tree says about you?

Our stories are as unique and nuanced as we are. We get to know each other through our stories. We identify more fully with people when we learn about their journeys and troubles and loves. Our Christmas trees, shining in our homes, can reveal our history, our quirks, our values, our memories, our senses of humor, ourselves.

Before we even bring the naked tree into the house, certain biases are evident in our choice. In the debate of "real tree vs. fake tree" (and with those adjectives I acknowledge my own prejudice), we must decide which kind of tree satisfies our sense of tradition or our commitment to environmental responsibility or our aesthetic preferences. There are persuasive arguments on both sides of the tree question. An artificial tree will always look perfectly shaped, as opposed to a real tree that often has what we call "character" once we bring it home from the lot and wrestle it into the stand. We can sometimes feel like the unlucky Charlie Brown in our chosen tree, but when it is decorated to cover its flaws, it is as beloved as the most perfect specimen.

Deciphering a family's story from the ornaments that grace their Christmas tree can be an illuminating trail to follow: On our tree, one can discover, for each child, Baby's First Christmas and maybe Baby's Second Christmas. There is the first ornament given to us as newlyweds, and those commemorating our homes over the years. There are names of children written in glitter on shiny balls. There are holy nativity scenes, and various versions of Santa. My husband has several for being the World's Best Teacher. There are photos of pets, some long gone, glued between green popsicle sticks. Construction paper chains pasted together by children long grown. Ornaments that were gifts from loved ones long passed away. Thematic ornaments from Sesame Street or Star Trek or Starbucks. Fancy Hallmark editions from specific years. Ornaments that came on top of gifts. Ornaments that came from office holiday parties. And my favorite: faded, misshapen ornaments, stars and snowmen and baby Jesuses, that were made as class projects by earnest and innocent students, aka our children.

Families sometimes have unusual tree traditions, such as the small Empire State Building, complete with a monkey from a Barrel-of-Monkeys game climbing up its side, which goes atop our tree every year. This custom dates to our first married Christmas, when we lived in Minneapolis, far from both of our families. As starving artists, we could barely afford a tree and had no ornaments, except for the aforementioned newlywed one that my mother had shipped to us. To liven up our tree, we combed our apartment for any item that could possibly hang from a paper clip on a tree branch. We are not the only ones with unconventional things hanging on our tree. "When do we hang the garlic, Mommy?" my 4-year-old nephew asked, which seemed an odd and not-very-festive addition, until my sister realized that he actually meant "garland."

Sometimes a Christmas tree is not so personal. My kids have known families in which only the mom decorates the tree, as though the children might mess up her artistry. Someone I once knew, who may have been related to Martha Stewart, placed different thematic Christmas trees throughout the house: a purple-and-gold L.A. Lakers tree in the TV room, a Santa Fe-style, aqua-and-terra-cotta creation to match the kitchen, and a fussy Victorian achievement in the formal front room. Even the bathroom had a little countertop tree to match the decor. Rather than adhering to any tradition, these trees changed from year to year, depending on the latest interior decoration of the home. Which also tells a story.

After the joy and warmth of Christmas, un-decorating the tree can be depressing. A remedy to this letdown appears in the "The After-Christmas Tree," by Linda Wagner Tyler & Susan Davis (Puffin Books, 1990, New York). In this story, when the family's stripped tree saddens the children, their mom creates a second winter celebration by using the discarded tree to make a home for birds and other wild creatures. The kids and their friends coat pinecones with peanut butter and roll them in birdseed, and string popcorn and berries together. They put these decorations on the tree outside, and scatter some nuts on the ground. Then they drink hot chocolate as they watch the wildlife through the window. "Our Christmas tree is enjoying its second season of giving," says the storybook mom.

Gathered in the light of our Christmas trees this year, may we treasure each other as we add to our stories. May we celebrate a holy and blessed Noel, and enjoy a yearlong season of giving.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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