My Father’s Christmas Trees

The men in my family have long taken our Christmas trees very, very seriously. My aunts and father would tell stories about how my grandfather was a stickler for getting the lights and ornaments ‘just so’ every year. My own father would take nearly a week to get ours properly set up.

  • Day 1: The setup. After setting a tree up, it needed a day to ‘fall out’ – that is have the branches basically thaw and open up to their fullest.
  • Day 2: Lights. Several hundred, strands beginning on the inside, then working out. Solids on the inside, blinking strands on last, so that even when they would blink off, there would be no ‘bare spots’ or dark patches….at any time. Ever.
  • Day 3: Ornaments. We kids would step in and hang them with him. Most of the ones we hung stayed right there, but some would magically reposition themselves overnight to places where they were less bunched up.
  • Day 4: Garland and Tinsel. You don’t see a lot of tinsel these days, but my father would painstakingly hang the stuff on appropriate branches, so that every last one of those several hundred lights reflected in such an amazing fashion. It was never ‘too much’ or painful to look at, but when he combined the lights and the ‘shiny stuff’….Some of those trees are the most vivid memories of my childhood.
  • Day 5: The village. This was my favorite day. I’ve never met many people who did this, but apparently it was a thing long, long ago, and everyone who did it had a different and unique village. My Grandfather used to have a disney village, complete with characters and Santa. For us, it was an old west scene. The floor around the base of the tree was covered in a large, square white sheet that resembled a snowy patch of ground. A string of lights would be laid down, and over them a dozen or so HO scale houses were placed. A church set front and center. To the left and right of the church ran a barber shop, a Sheriff’s office, a stable, a saloon…everything you might see in a western movie, up to and including a train station, with an old steam locomotive with two coaches setting on a piece of track in front of it. The streets were then lined with people. Tiny, HO scale figures, painted by my mother’s steady hand. Couples leaving church, a stagecoach, horses- each one uniquely painted, picketed outside of the buildings, and there were even baggage carts and passengers waiting at the train station.
    -It was amazing. He spent so long on it, and it always turned out absolutely stunning. Of course, the beauty of it lasted about as long as it took for one of the dogs to come into the living room, or the cat to run under the tree. He never got mad when it was messed up though- I think resetting it every hour and a half was part of the fun.

I too now spend a lot of time on our tree, with the boys helping where they can. I take too much time putting on hundreds of lights, but no matter how good it might look, I can never seem to match the majesty that were my father’s trees. I don’t use tinsel and garland, since the boys are small and the cats are stupid. Nor do I do the village, since the boys are small and the cats are stupid. So to me, even though The Narrator loves it and my wife assures me that it looks just fine, it always has a sense of being incomplete to me.

I know very well that trying to match what my childhood eye used to see simply isn’t possible, but I’m not trying to do it for my own satisfaction. I’m trying like hell to share with my boys the wonder and amazement I used to feel when my father would finally sit back and call those trees finished. If I remember correctly, there was always a small glass of Creme de Minthe at the end of it, a drink I have since come to associate with the Christmas season.

We pick our tree up tonight. This weekend I will spend time with my family piecing the whole thing together. I hope, that the boys with their eyes, will see what I used to. Even if I’ll never be satisfied with how it turns out, much the same as I imagine my own father used to feel when he thought back….to his father’s Christmas Trees.


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