The Family Christmas Tree

Growing up as an Army brat, I clung to traditions.  I couldn’t cling to homes or rooms or hometowns.  We moved roughly every four years until the final move to Germany where my parents have lived now for over thirty years (except for the fact that they winter in Florida now…but I’m just getting technical).

I don’t have a hometown.  I hate it when people ask me “where do you come from?” because my gut response is “my mother’s womb” and I’m not even being sarcastic.  I was born in England.  We moved six weeks later.  I am not British and haven’t been back to the Yorkshire town where I was born for forty years.

We lived in DC, in Germany.  With my husband, I lived in Richmond for nearly twenty years.  I am not from any of those places.

I have no hometown.

But I have home-traditions that have defined my life and have made every home a hometown for me.  The most powerful of which was Christmas and the act of decorating the tree.

Before I was born (or maybe the year I was born), my parents bought a fake Christmas tree that was easily tucked into boxes and shipped from country to country, home to home.  Every December, right around the 20th, on my great-grandmother’s birthday (I hope I’m getting this right), we extracted the tree and set it up.  Then, my mother, brother, and I lined up in a long train, holding first the Christmas lights and then the garland and circled the tree, stringing up the first sets of decorations.  Then came the ornaments and the bulbs, each with their own story that I had devised.

As a girl, I worshipped the tree.  After the first night of decorating and while I was sure of my privacy, I quietly moved the ornaments to their designated places in accordance with their stories, status, importance, and beauty.  Sometimes, I would plug in the lights and curl up under the tree, looking up through the branches at the glowing rainbow filtering through the plastic needles.

The tree was sacred.  It was one of the few bits of stability in a transient life.  Seasons came and went.  My brother and I grew up.  He went to college first and our lives shifted around his absence.  But the Christmas tree was a stable family member.  The ornaments continued to inhabit their habitual places, even as I abandoned the stories I had invented as a child.  I had to follow the traditions I had created years earlier.

And then, I went to college, moved out of my parents’ home, met my husband, and started my own Christmas traditions.  We initially bought real trees.  And then we switched to fake.  And then we returned to the real trees….but wait……we bought another fake tree that looked a lot less pitiful than this sparse and miserable Charlie Brown tree that I think my son might have knocked over when he tried to curl up under the tree, like I had narrated to him, to look at the glowing spectrums tucked within.

My ornaments don’t have their specific locations.  I do have certain ornaments that I want to have close to the lights because they reflect the colors and glow so I position the ornaments in specific places so when I’m sitting in my favorite chair, I can easily spot them.  I don’t set up my tree on a specific day.  I always take it down by New Year’s Eve because of a friend’s superstition.

Today is my mother’s birthday, the day when she traditionally takes down the tree.  This year, she had cracked several ribs in a bad fall and, initially hadn’t put up the tree.  I have to admit, I was a bit upset.  My mother always put up the tree.  And she even insisted on certain traditions to be observed (when my brother or I are with her).  So seeing her and my father’s home devoid of the faithful tree was a bit hard….it was a sign that they are aging which shouldn’t be such a big deal.  My parents are in their early 70’s.  Aging is kind of one of those things that happen.

And usually I can accept that.

Until it messes with my childhood Christmas tree.

Mom found a way to fulfill her traditional urges…she put up the ornaments on her bookshelves.  She even put the right ornaments together which ignited the happy child within me.

Today is Mom’s birthday and, while I was at work planning out this semester’s lessons, I received a text from her and Dad.

With the Christmas tree.


Not decorated.


I’m not still not certain how the tree made its annual appearance, but Dad had basically cut the center pole that was the tree’s spine down to the smallest height possible.  Into the top, he screwed in the tree topper…and maybe some of the branches.

But what used to be a tree that was at least four feet is now….not four feet.  And, even though I pride myself on my ability to detach from objects….I sat at my desk in my classroom and felt my breath still.

It was like a part of my childhood had been truncated (no pun intended).  My daughter has recently been talking a lot about her childhood.  She has started watching her favorite childhood movies and television shows, laughing at the same jokes, reminiscing about moments that now feel so far away.  She is close to 16.  She is learning how to drive.  She is learning how to work on cars.  She is thinking about colleges and moving out and moving forward.  Life is beautiful but temporary and with it are the objects that are also temporary.

But my hypocrisy bled from me when I sat at my desk and took in a long breath and stared at the little Christmas tree that does have some melted branches and is probably a fire hazard.  But it’s my childhood.  Which is tucked into the past but still glistens like an incandescent rainbow.

Last year was constant change.  And the change continues.  I know that I can’t prevent it nor do I feel the need to do so.  But that does not mean that I completely ignore the pinch that comes when I encounter the change that I didn’t know was on its way.

Next December, I plan on going to Florida to spend Christmas with my parents.  I don’t know how many ornaments will be able to go on the tiny tree…but the gold one with my name spelled in glitter is down there.  And it still fits just right.

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