Jessie Raymond: Christmas memories color reality

One of my favorite holiday traditions is putting up the Christmas tree.
It’s the same every year: One day in December we head out to the tree farm, where we tromp through the freshly fallen snow until we find the perfect tree. We cut it, tie it to the roof of the car and sing “Jingle Bells” all the way home.
We set up the tree in the corner of the living room, drape it with lights and decorate it, drinking hot cocoa while holiday music plays in the background.
At least that’s how I remember it always being. Reality is a bit less idyllic.
Heading out to the tree farm. Just getting there is an ordeal. It’s almost impossible to find an hour or two in December when no one in the house is (a) working, (b) in school, (c) at practice or (d) sulking in their room (though I only did that once). We generally settle on a 45-minute window on a Sunday afternoon, when it’s 12 degrees and blustery.
Finding the perfect tree. There isn’t one. After a heated debate over 20 to 30 trees that all look alike, the final choice will be made by the last person who hasn’t retreated to the relative warmth of the car. Out of spite, for the next three weeks the other family members will comment on the tree’s bare spot every time they enter the living room.
Singing all the way home. Yeah, right.
Setting up the tree. After scouring our outbuildings for an hour or two, we locate the tree stand and the saw to trim the lowest branches. The saw is an inexplicable part of this tradition; its teeth are so dull that it doesn’t actually cut anything. The friction generated by scraping it vigorously against the trunk, however, does occasionally start a fire. We consider it part of the excitement of the holidays.
To straighten the tree, my husband Mark crawls underneath while I hold the top. The remaining family members are asked to stand across the room and judge the tree for plumb. Still stinging from the rejection of their choice of a 10-foot-tall tree for our 8-foot-tall living room, they say, “Yeah, whatever, it’s fine,” and Mark locks the tree into place at an 8-degree angle. The bare spot is front and center.
Draping the lights. First, we must untangle them. I swear they go into the Christmas box carefully arranged every year, but they come out in a clump the size of the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square. We check them, though I’m not sure why, since they work fine until they have been strung on the tree.
Then comes the annual debate: Do we wrap the lights around and around the tree like a garland, which requires extensive bending and reaching — and which exhausts any last reserves of familial cooperation — or simply run them up and down until the whole tree has been covered, which gives the same results but is easier to undo? There is only one correct way, but some people just won’t listen.
Decorating the tree. We all have different styles. One of us hangs only the “good” ornaments, leaving the generic red and silver balls in the bottom of the box. One of us insists that all the ornaments be perfectly spaced — even on the back of the tree. (Sure, no one can see back there, but how can I sleep at night knowing such glaring asymmetry exists?) One of us loses interest after a few minutes and sneaks off to watch TV.
Enjoying hot chocolate. At this point it’s after midnight. No one is enjoying anything.
When the tree is finally lit and decorated, we turn off the living room lights and admire it for four seconds. The rest of the holidays are spent arguing whose turn it is to water it.
I know what you’re thinking: “If putting up a tree is that much trouble, why not just buy a fake one you can pull out of the closet?”
Sure, getting a live tree is inconvenient, time consuming and messy. And it makes us threaten divorce over such issues as the ideal length of each segment of garland. But putting up the tree every year is a tradition, and in my balsam-scented, twinkle-lighted memory, it’s one of the best and most necessary parts of Christmas.
This weekend, we’ll probably go get our tree. Heaven help me, but I’m looking forward to it.

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