Thursday, December 18, 2014


Five Views of a Christmas Tree
By Judith Cullen

(c) 2014

View Three

“There’s no way I am paying good money for a tree that looks like that!”  When you grow up in the Evergreen State and you move to the heartland of America, trying to buy a Christmas tree can be disappointing.  They are shipped in from whence you came, and I know what I felt like after three days in a truck and I was still fully alive.  No offense is intended to the good people who purvey holiday tree joy to the residents of the Midwest or to the aesthetic tastes of those same good folk.  To me, the color just wasn’t right, the limbs seemed weak.  I didn’t even have to take a close look.  I could see that they were “lacking” from the parking area. 

There were also a lot of “shirred” trees.  That’s were they trim a trees branches with a hedge trimmer so that they fit some sort of pre-determined notion of symmetry and perfection.  I hate those trees.  When you come from a land brimming with “the real deal” these all seem fake.  I felt the same way about the puny apples I saw in the grocery, waxed to within an inch of their lives to increase their visual appeal.  “I know how long you’ve been in the packing case,” I would think as I passed them by.  To me, a good apple should rival a softball in diameter, not a wiffle ball.

So I demurred, passed, went home sans tree.  For someone who loves Christmas the way I do, it was a bold step.  I marched into the following week wondering what the heck I was going to do about a tree.  I didn’t really want to buy an artificial one.  It was the 1980s and thoughts of green holiday practices were years away.  Given enough time and creativity, I came up with a solution. 

There was a forested space behind the house I rented, and I didn’t have to go too far into it to find suitable fallen tree limbs, their leaves having long since abandoned them.  I found a couple after work one night that looked good for what I intended.  There were several plant hooks in the ceiling of my dining room and it was a simple matter to add a few more and rig the limbs up in the air.  They curled tantalizingly around the ceiling fan light fixture, and a few strategic snaps ensured that there was nothing to interfere with the fan or endanger anything on the tree.  Eventually the dining room tree would surround the fan on all sides, filling up the empty space in the ceiling, but that first year it only covered two sides, seeming to sprout out of one corner as if the tree had burst in from the outside.

It was a great solution, and completely cat proof.  No objections from my landlord as it did not in anyway harm the house.  It was easy to secure a power cable in such a way that the Christmas lights were in no danger of pulling the limbs down.  It was such a success that I left it up and expanded it.  Over the course of the year it held Valentine hearts on it, festoons of shamrocks and gold coins, Easter bunnies and tiny colored eggs, spring flowers, to-scale patriotic bunting and flags, apples, orange and black crepe paper with tiny Kleenex ghosts adhered to the ceiling fan so that they were in perpetual flight all through October.

Then came the second Christmas.  December was rolling around and I had gone to visit the annual Dickens Christmas Festival in the old market of the city where I lived.  My favorite store in the market, not surprisingly, was a store that sold Christmas things, along side other items appropriate to various holidays, throughout the year. 

The Dickens Festival was marvelous.  There were roast chestnuts available on the street and a variety of buskers and street vendors to fill out the celebration.  I was enjoying a performance on one of the outdoor stages when I had the sudden, totally unexpected feeling that something was very wrong.  So I left and went home.  Not more than a few hours passed before the phone rang.  It was my Mom.  My Dad had a heart attack in the kitchen that night, and he was gone. Dead.  I’d just spoken to him a few days before.  Something had been wrong, and the reality of it sank down over me like a heavy fog accompanied by a surreal sense of disbelief.

The next day the pastor from my church came by to visit me in my fog of numbness.  I knew my sister and Mom were back home making lists.  That’s what they do.  Here I was, in a place and life my Dad had never been a part of, and I had no idea what to do.  So I grabbed my big box of Christmas ornaments and, as the Pastor sat there patiently with me, I took them out one at a time and told the story of each one.  Mom had given us one ornament a year since we were infants, plus the accumulation of others from friends and such along the way. It was an odd kind of therapy, but each story was told and then each ornament was placed on the bare branches of the tree.  It was strangely calming, and I felt better after wards, though it was just the first step in the process of grieving. 

I moved home to the Pacific Northwest the next fall, certain in my belief that I did not want to spend another winter in the Midwest, and I never wanted to live that far away from my family ever again.  I never wanted to feel that isolated and powerless ever again, when something happened which impacted the life of myself and my loved ones so deeply.

Just this year, in thinning out my possessions a friend challenged me with that same box.  I demurred at first to touch anything inside it, to even consider getting rid of anything in it.  Every year that I have opened that box since the year that Dad died, I have remembered the ornament therapy.  I’m now pleased to include among my collection some of the ornaments that were his, and I cherish them.  After hesitating, I delved into the box. Slowly at first, but gradually gaining momentum until I went through it entirely. The rubric was simple: if the ornament had no story or could not be remembered it was time for it to bring joy to someone else’s Christmas.

I had been motivated by economics and a certain regional prejudice when I had invented the ceiling tree miles away from my hometown, all those holidays ago.  Little did I know that somehow, it was preparing me for a moment when I would need Christmas, and need it profoundly.


I am reminded that an inevitable part of the season is remembering those we love who are no longer with us.  The trick is not to remember the loss, but to remember the love - hold it tight, cherish it.  It is always a living part of you.  ~ jdc

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