Thursday 19 January 2017

The Perfect Tree

One of my strongest Xmas memories (aside from listening to Truman Capote recite his Xmas Memory—as a child, I thought it was a woman speaking) is picking out a Xmas tree with my mother.  It always seemed like we chose the coldest night possible for this, but that was undoubtedly a matter of perception.  In my OCD way, I would have to examine every tree of suitable height on the lot before narrowing it down to the top contenders and finally making that important decision.  I never thought about the cost but I realise now it was significant to my mother.  The tree lot guys would come out of their warming trailer, smelling of beer, and offer to tie the tree to our non-existent car.  We'd each hoist an end and carry it however many blocks (the lots moved around from year to year) home, and up the stairs to our third floor apartment.  In my memory, there is always snow.  In reality, there would likely not have been.

One year, my mother decided she wanted a train to go around the tree.  She bought a large square board with a track nailed to it, in the centre of which we placed the tree stand, and began to collect Dept. 56 village components.  It was to be a Victorian English village, although the only train she could find from the period was American.  This was an anachronism only we would notice.  Amongst the minute plastic figures that one could purchase to people the village were, to our surprise, a set of nudes meant to be artist models.  Of course, we bought this & reposed them on balconies and in doorways.  You'd have to look closely at the village to notice them so I expect most guests never knew what a debauched little town it was.

After I moved away, my mother stopped celebrating Xmas.  But I didn't.  I had to be creative when I was away from the rituals and traditions, and especially the decorations, of my childhood, but I have managed to honour the facets of the season that resonate with me wherever I have lived.

Food is a crucial element.  In some countries, I have not been able to make the same treats I made at home (marshmallow fluff for fudge was not to be had in Russia or Italy or even the UK), but I learned to make saffron buns in Sweden, mince pies in Edinburgh, and king cakes in Paris.  I became a devotee of Chocolate Kimberleys in Ireland and panettone in Florence.

Music is equally as important, and I have been lucky to find live Xmas music most places I have lived.  I've been to midnight mass at Notre Dame on Xmas Eve, and seen the Nutcracker performed by a Russian ballet.  At first, I had tapes of the Xmas albums I listened to as a child.  Later, I got them on CD.  Now, I can stream endless Xmas music online.  My most rigid Xmas rule is that I listen only to Xmas music from Thanksgiving to Epiphany.  Each year, I have difficulty letting go of it come January 7th.  Like finishing up the last of the eggnog (I write this on January 18th with enough for one more eggnog latte, two if I skimp, and don't ask me how much eggnog ice cream I have stashed in the freezer), I have to make the music last a bit longer, knowing I won't get to enjoy it again until next Thanksgiving.  I've yet to be able to go cold turkey; I usually start to gradually incorporate non-Xmas music into my listening until I've weaned myself off it entirely.  When I was a kid singing in choir, we'd start rehearsing Xmas music in November, giving me an early taste that I felt privileged to have.  I realise it wouldn't be special if one listened to it all year, but it's hard to confine my favourite music to such a short period of time, one reason I am so rigid about not listening to any other type of music during that Thanksgiving-Epiphany interval.  My ex, who was Jewish, hated this ritual, but that's what headphones are for.  The big point of contention was in the car.  He'd want to listen to the Ramones, I'd want Bach's Xmas Oratorio, and we'd fight.  Next partner is going to have to acquiesce or fuck off; this is not negotiable.

Light is another reason Xmas is my favourite time of year.  Holiday lights are so heartening.  My family has a genetic tendency to depression and the dark, cold winter days are challenging.  Sun and exercise and warmth work brain chemical magic to lift my mood and they are absent in winter.  I always think Xmas comes too early.  The lights cheer me – I take them in greedily like vital nourishment – but most people take them down after New Year's.  Of course I know the history of why Xmas is celebrated near the winter solstice, but this is just the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, with 2-3 months of cold, dark misery to endure after the Xmas lights are packed away.  We need to move Xmas to sometime around the end of February, to give us something to look forward to.  I call my lights "winter lights" rather than "holiday lights", and leave them up for the duration.  It helps—a little.

Wherever I have lived, I have made a point of buying Xmas lights.  In Russia, it turned out the lights available were not made for Russian outlets but a friend had her husband, an electrician, adapt them.  Of course I gave them to her when I left.  I love celebrating Xmas in Sweden because they take the lights very seriously.  Every street, every window, is cosily lit, warm and inviting.   It cheers me up just to think about it.

Decorations are the final component of Xmas.   Once I left home, I had to improvise what I could not afford to buy.  As a student, I strung my dorm room with lights (and illegal cranberry and pine-scented candles), and decorated my door wreath with juniper, holly, roses, and white sprigs of baby's breath standing in for snow.  Now I have all of the family ornaments and decorations, which have the most sentimental value of all my possessions.  I care for them lovingly, and treasure each antique ornament.  My favourite are the wax ornaments purchased from an Austrian bakery on the Northwest side of Chicago.  I also love the garlands, made from glass beads salvaged from a Czech factory destroyed in WWII.  I could go on but realise no-one else is likely to share my passionate love affair with my Xmas decorations.  Oh, but there is one more thing I have to mention:  I have an envelope full of Xmas cards I received or purchased years ago that I tape to the walls.  My favourite is a card from my friend Fred, a classmate in Italy, and I have some Swedish ones I also adore.  They're all outdoor scenes, with animals or gnomes, but not kitschy.  I also have some with renaissance or Pre-Raph angels and illuminated manuscripts.  They have no monetary value but they are significant treasures.

This is the first time I have lived in a house, extending my decorating sphere to the outdoors, with lights for the porch and a garland wrapped with lights for the mailbox post.  (The latter met with an accident last year about a month before I would have taken them down.  I hope this year's have better luck.)  I am limited by a lack of outdoor outlets to lights that are battery-operated, which are weaker and require a safe, dry place to stash the battery packs.  There is a house down the street that employs the see-them-from-orbit style of outdoor lights.  That's not my taste.  Across the street is a house with New England window candles and white lights on their porch and wreath.  Much classier.  If I had outlets to work with, that's more what I'd be going for.

Of course the decorating centrepiece is the tree.  I felt very grown-up the first year I had my own tree.  I didn't yet have the family ornaments, and had to improvise with straw ornaments from Sweden and pine cones and more baby's breath.  I even made a popcorn-and-cranberry garland once.  Candy canes and decorated cookies, with holes poked in the top before baking, can also be pressed into service for the tree.

At first, I got trees from a lot, albeit now tying them on top of the car for the trip home.  These were perfect, symmetrical, elegant trees, as if they were drawn by an artist for an idyllic Xmas scene.  I had one some years ago that will go down in history at the Best Tree Ever.  But, as a city girl now living in the country, I was naturally drawn to the opportunity to cut my own fresh tree.  So, I started going to a tree farm.  It is unfortunately situated on the side of a hill, so all the trees have a bad side, but they are all balsams, my traditional type from childhood, and the nice family that owns it uses a sustainable stump culture method.  It's also a lovely drive to get there.  In recent years this farm has started to bring fresh cut trees down to my local co-op on the first Saturday in December.  For practical reasons, I have started to get my tree there rather than making the journey to cut one on my own.  The selection is poor.  I'm surrounded here by many lots with perfect trees, cut before Thanksgiving, shipped down from Canada, and sold at a premium.  I tell myself I can't afford those trees, that they're not as fresh, they're not local, but it's really become a question of loyalty.  The woman from the tree farm expects me each year, has trees in mind for me, and appreciates that I always show her a photo of last year's decorated tree.  This year, I almost had to tell her I couldn't find one that would do.  It was the sorriest selection of Charlie Brown trees I had ever seen.  Each year I tell myself that once it's decorated, it will look fine, but this year I wasn't so sure.  You can be the judge:

You might have noticed that my rundown of Xmas necessities did not mention people.  Each year my parents ask me to come home for Xmas or, when I was with my ex, he wanted me to go with him to visit his (Jewish) family.  I feel guilty, but I've had to turn them both down.  No-one else's Xmas is Xmas-y enough for me.  I need the lights, the music, the food, the eggnog, the warmth, above all the control of the Xmas environment.  I prefer to host Xmas rather than visit.  &, this is where I have to take an unpopular stand:  I'd rather spend Xmas alone, in my warm house, watching Rankin-Bass Xmas specials and curling up on the sofa in front of the tree for my annual reading of "A Xmas Carol" than be with family or friends in their cold, non-Xmasy homes.

I'm sorry; this is what Xmas is about to me.  If people want to come visit, I love to have people to cook for and play games and music with.  Most years, no-one sees my tree but me.  Most years, I make a traditional Xmas feast, with all the trimmings, for myself.  I have many pet peeves but the peeviest, the one that makes me apoplectic with rage (ok, I guess that takes it beyond pet peeve status) is when people, and this happens every fucking year, tell me I shouldn't bother to have a tree if I am the only one to see it nor spend all of Xmas day cooking a feast just for myself.  There seems to be some unspoken obligation not to do much for the holidays if one is alone.  I don't understand that.  Never have, never will.  I love to have guests during the holiday season.  When I have enough local friends available, I host a Xmas party to decorate anatomically-correct gingerbread people.  I make fondue and mulled wine and bake lots of cookies.  But if everyone's busy with their own families and it happens that I am the only one to see my tree or taste the Xmas turkey and cranberry sauce, why the hell should I have less or do without because I am alone?  I don't get it, and I annually tell people who express surprise that I would have something outrageous like my own fucking Xmas tree or actual Xmas dinner to go fuck themselves.
Now January proceeds apace.  I can leave the lights up, I can still cue up Purcell's "Behold, I Bring You Glad Tidings" on Spotify, but I have to face the fact that it is now time to take down the tree and put away the decorations.  I'll do it this weekend.  I always dread it, but with the inauguration and Bishop leaving, it's already going to be a depressing weekend.  The holiday season has this buoyant the-usual-rules-are-suspended feel to it that can't last long by its very nature but leaves me bereft, always wondering how I will drag myself through the rest of winter.  I don't know what other people do.  How do they keep their spirits up?  I love the silence of snow, and the cosiness of winter, curling up on the sofa with knitting and a mug of tea or hot chocolate or mulled wine, but I also find it in many ways interminable and dispiriting.  I always need something to look forward to, and winter, once the holidays are over, does not provide that.  It's a time for discipline, New Year's resolutions for self-improvement that always involve diets and exercise and sacrifice, a time to get back to work.  Now you see why Xmas needs to be moved to the end of February.  I can't be the only one who needs something to look forward to other than mud and tax season.

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