A Ghost of Christmas Past


When I was a kid, my mother loved Christmas.  I see now it was fitting because Carolyn liked sparkly things all year round, and she kind of lived in this world with fairy sprites and earthen spirits.  “Isn’t it terrible,” she once said, “how every Christmas we chop down all those majestic pines in the prime of their lives?”  I was next to my older sister, and I watched her eyes narrow.  She knew when a storm was brewing.  

“Wouldn’t you rather,” she asked with a big smile, “have a Christmas twig? Something that fell naturally to the ground, that we would give a second life to in our living room?”

Without even moving my head, I stole another look at my sister.  Because she already knew what was just starting to dawn on me.  Our parents just didn’t fit in.  I mean, we were new in town, just starting to make friends, and couldn’t we PLEASE just have a normal tree like everyone else??  

But we knew that Carolyn’s question wasn’t really a question.  Our fate had already been determined. 

I tried making the best of it though. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll look for the twig.”  We lived on a wooded lot and I thought it would be easy enough, but I came home despairing.  All the twigs I found were crumpled on one side, or too small, or too prickly to even touch.  And besides that, they were TWIGS!

“Don’t worry,” my mother said cheerfully.  “Your father will take care of it.”  My father was not a tall man, but he was compact and strong.  On any given day, he might find my mother either mildly entertaining or completely exasperating.  And thinking about it now, I’d say he felt that way about most things.  But sure enough, a few days later I spotted him out the back window. 

He was at the edge of a bank of trees struggling to pull the stump end of our Christmas twig beyond the branches of its neighboring pines.  His face was red, and he kept losing his footing until he dug his heels in and gave that twig a final, mighty tug.  It broke free suddenly, which threw him down hard.  I winced behind the window as I saw him cursing.  But even worse, as he picked himself up and collected his tools, I realized that he was holding a small saw. 

A SAW?  Weren’t we supposed to be saving the majestic pines?  Well, how about those plucky young saplings?  Weren’t their stories just as tragic?  I knew better than to mention it, but I know my mother ended up seeing it too. 

I caught her having a quiet moment with that twig, and when I asked what she was doing she said she was just thanking it for its service.

Regardless, we propped that tree up in a bucket in our living room.  We sprayed some fake snow on it, wrapped a blanket around the base, strung it with lights and silver tinsel, and added our odd assortment of ornaments.  And honestly, it wasn’t so bad.  My sister never really came around, but I grew to like it. But I’ve got some of my mother in me.  Anything strung up with fairy lights and dangled with sparkly ornaments can’t be all bad.  And now, with all the twinkle that marks this holiday season, I think of Carolyn frequently. 

Jumping ahead about 25 years, I realize my own tree expeditions were marked with their own strife.  For a number of years, we went to a tree farm to find our perfect tree.  (You see, Carolyn?  They replace them!)  But getting four kids to agree on anything was difficult in the cereal aisle, and just impossible when the stakes were so high.  And did I say perfect tree?  I really meant that any old tree would do.  And thank goodness I felt that way because decision by committee does not always reap the finest results.  Just ask my cat we collectively named Meatball.

And our trees?  Oh, we had some real clunkers.  Once, we found a large tree at the farm and out of desperation just chopped the top off of it and dragged it home.  (Shhhh… I think that’s Carolyn rolling in her grave.)  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but leaving behind that butchered half-tree just didn’t feel right.  And when we got the other half home it sat squatly in our living room looking more like a shrub than a majestic pine.

Another year, we unwittingly bought a tree that, on day two, began aggressively losing its needles and rejecting water.  Every time I walked by, I’d hear that cartoon-like tinkle-tinkle-tinkle of the needles hitting the wrapped presents below.  I hauled that thing out bright and early on December 26th, and with that final effort it was practically naked on the curb.  It bore a troubling resemblance to the Christmas twig of my past. 

The last few trees we got while I was still married came from the farm stand down the road.  Just me and my ex meeting after work.  A fist bump to mark the occasion.  So easy!  The kids had lost interest.  They were at the stage where they just wanted Christmas to magically appear in the living room, all dressed up and ready for action.  And so that’s what we did.

But you know what?  I loved all those trees, even the twig.  I’d dressed them up in the holiday sparkle, sat next to them while anticipating the season, and even took quiet moments to thank them for their service. 

I’m a designer, but I’ve never really had a designer tree.  Do I have words of advice as to how you can create one?  Well, I suppose I do.  But honestly, it just doesn’t matter.  Just sparkle it up, add your own messy mix of love and tradition, hug your mom close if she’s still alive, and set that bar low for what you take on with the rest of the family.  Just be there, and the rest will follow.

Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her website is: colescoloranddesign.com