Thirty years ago, we bought an artificial Christmas tree. It was shortly after we first moved to St. Michaels.
The tree was magnificent. It looked as alive as anything that isn’t, can. The tree was humongous, a good ten feet tall, thick and reaching up beyond the living room rafters. It filled the corner of the room. However, in the last few years it seemed a production to have to assemble and decorate it. This was not the case when we were thirty years younger with energy and mobility in abundance.
For years, we had two dear friends come to stay with us for a few days before Christmas. They’d pitch in to assemble the tree and it took all eight hands a few hours to put it together. Over the years this was always a warm and welcoming ritual . . . and efficient, I’d add.
One of those friends has died. The other is significantly stricken in years and is no longer able to travel. We feel their absence. We also miss their help. As we have aged, the task of putting up the tree grows more challenging. It was always a labor-intensive job, anyway, requiring a hefty measure of isometric capability and balance skills. However, these skills are rapidly fading. My wife, Jo, suggested we make the tree smaller. The art of aging well is knowing when to downsize.
Since the trunk of the tree originally came in two five-foot sections, she proposed we simply use one half of the tree trunk, reducing its height by half, making the job of getting it decorated far easier and less hazardous. Now, I no longer risk a fall by standing on a tall ladder to put the star at the top. I don’t have to sit, splayed out on the floor at the base of the tree, stressing arthritic joints, attempting to insert lower branches into the trunk, always unsure of just how I’d get up again.
Halving the tree was an inspired idea. Our beloved tree is still with us. It is, as we too have become, diminished, but still an active participant in our yuletide.
As married couples do, we have our differences. We have differences about tinsel. Jo’s idea of halving the tree I thought was great, but her insistence on adding tinsel was not. I have always found tinsel gaudy, difficult to hang and even more challenging to remove; remember that every season the tree must be disassembled, the tinsel removed and the tree stored. Tinsel has to be removed limb by limb and in some cases one strand at a time. It clings to me, like those Styrofoam peanuts that escape the box they arrived in and come after you as you try fleeing them.
We don’t act, as we once did in our more barbaric days years ago. The day after New Year’s Day, we’d incinerate our live tree in a gleeful conflagration. The upside of this was that the tinsel went up in flames with the tree. No fuss. Still, torching the tree seemed such a thankless way of ending the tender relationship we enjoyed with these trees during the holidays. Acquiring an artificial tree assured that we wouldn’t commit this kind of obscenity any more.
Jo and I have resolved our tinsel differences amicably. I simply will not get involved with the tinsel, either its going on or its coming off; it’s entirely up to her to hang and remove it. This suits her well as she doesn’t have to listen to me grouse about it.
A cloud hangs over this holiday’s festivities; the coronavirus has renewed its assaults on us with a vengeance. We’d be wise, although saddened, not to engage in many of the social traditions we routinely enjoyed at Christmas. I think of the delights of roaming around department stores, attending parties, and going to midnight church services. I liked the get together with friends and neighbors, and catching up with relatives we’ve not seen for a year.
I’ll find it hard this year not be together with family for the holidays in our traditional ways. “To grandmother’s house we go”, the popular song states. But Christmas dinner at grandma’s (our house) in 2020 could be the worst thing for grandma and the whole family. There’s no way we can be sure that we’ll not be a danger to her and to each other, mixing it up in the closed spaces of a living room or kitchen. The virus has turned everything around: the safe places of home and hearth where we once gathered for comfort; the simple pleasures of being together, have become potentially dangerous. The virtual era has begun in earnest. We remain connected in a new and strange way. Our natural instinct to protect loved ones from impending threats is to get closer to them, to hold and touch them. Now as we all feel threatened we have to develop strategies for maintaining safe distance. It makes sound medical and scientific sense, but it feels intellectually counterintuitive and emotionally hollow.
Although it happens slowly, the human family’s capacity to accommodate to the demands of reality, is good. And so, we will have to accommodate to a virtual world until we can be with one another as three-dimensional beings rather than as the two-dimensional kind.
For now, through the weal and woe of this holiday season, we can always enjoy the comfort of our Christmas trees. But for those of you who prefer live trees, best to act soon. I am told that this year, live Christmas trees have become hotter items, than toilet paper was last spring.
I wonder why?
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.