It's beginning to feel a bit more like the holidays as we decorated our Christmas tree today.
Despite being in a largely non-religious family, the Christmas tree was always a big deal in my family. We didn't actually do much with the rest of the religious side of things. Sure, we had a carved creche and the baby Jesus was never put into the cradle until Christmas morning but I made up for it by putting the trumpet-playing penguin there instead to fill the space.
We occasionally went to midnight mass but only if we were staying with my mom's mom, who was a practicing Catholic her whole life. The rest of us? We went because that's what you did when staying at my grandmother's house. When I was 14 or 15, I absolutely didn't want to go and my uncle took me aside and bluntly told me to stop being an asshole and go because it would make my grandmother happy. Besides, everyone told me, there would be loads of Christmas carols and it would be fun. It was horrendous actually and afterward, I seem to recall a few members of my family apologizing for making me go. I did of course get my revenge when, six or seven years ago, everyone was at my mom's house for Christmas Eve, my grandmother wanted to go to mass, and wanted my uncle to take her. He wasn't terribly happy about it and appeared to be trying to get out of it. So I very politely reminded him of a certain conversation he had with me twenty some odd years before. Beside, I told him, I'm sure it will be lots of fun.
The big tradition in my family was the trimming of the tree. We'd either get a a pre-cut tree at a local nursery or, for a really special time, go to a Christmas tree farm and pick out a tree that would be cut down on the spot, loaded on the car, and then we'd head home, usually after having some warm cider at the tree farm's little shed. When we got home, my dad would string the lights and then we'd all start putting on the ornaments. For many years, my father made sure to tie off the top of the tree to appropriately solid sections of the walls, doors or windows, a response to a rather disastrous intersection of me at age 4, the concept of climbing the tree, and the reality of gravity. You've never experienced a fully decorated Christmas tree until it's lying on top of you.
Anyhow, while it was something of a free-for-all on ornament hanging, there were some rules. For example, ornaments needed to be hanging freely, not resting on another branch. I recall my mother enforcing this particular one on a regular basis. Then we'd go to bed and my mother would stay up hanging the tinsel.
That was fine with me. Tinsel = tedium thanks to a further expansion of the rules. Not only did the tinsel have to hang freely but there couldn't be more than one or two pieces per branch. Neither I nor my sister had the patience for that and we'd end up with big silver blobs that I think drove my mom nuts. So we'd be allowed to hang a few strands of tinsel and then head off to bed. As a result, the morning after we trimmed the tree was always something of a revelation as we'd come downstairs to find a well-tinseled tree and my exhausted mother.
Needless to say, some of those traditions have slipped by the wayside. I'm pretty sure I've seen some "branch resting" ornaments on my mom's tree and she's given up on tinsel all together.
Tinsel of course was never part of the equation once I got my own place and started having my own tree (not to mention cats who were fascinated with chewing on the tinsel). And when Jennifer and I got engaged and had our first tree together, we quickly began to invent our own rituals, largely because trimming a Christmas tree was an entirely new experience for Jennifer, who was raised in a largely non-practicing Jewish household. For the first few years, she'd worry that she was doing something wrong. But that's the beauty of the thing. It's our tree, our traditions, our rules so anything goes.
In the intervening nine years, we've established our own set of traditions. I do the tree shopping, buying, and transporting. Jenn, while all for the concept of a Christmas tree, still experiences some qualms about using a real cut tree. However, like her unbreakable rule of "no TV set in the bedroom", I have a similarly non-negotiable position...no fake Christmas trees (except for the little one we have in the basement so we can have some Christmas lights down there).
After I set up the tree and haul it inside, I set it up and take up my father's mantle as "official stringer of lights". Once the lights are on, we begin to decorate. The first ornaments to go on are the new ones for the year as we traditionally buy each other a new, unique ornament as our first holiday gifts to each other. Then the star goes on (yes, I know some traditionalists say it has to go on last but once all the other ornaments are on, it becomes that much more difficult to do it without disturbing the other items) and then we delve into the rest of the wrapped and boxed ornaments.
It's like greeting old friends when we do this. We find our gift ornaments from past years and set them aside so that we can each rehang the gifts we were given. We laugh about the odd ones (the fat clear glass reindeer; the beheaded snowman -- just the head, no body, kinda creepy but we like it; the small shark's jaw that my uncle gave me years ago; the cheerleading moose) and try to remember who gave us the other ones. All the while, Christmas music is playing on the stereo so we're joined in our small family gathering by Glenn Miller and Mel Torme, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Buffett, and the modern renditions on the excellent "A Winter's Night" CD. And when we're all done hanging ornaments, a process that takes about 90 minutes, we turn off all the lights, turn on the tree's lights (please god let them not have a faulty bulb somewhere that kills a whole string), and sit together for a while on the couch enjoying the sight with the cats curled up around us before settling in to watch a Christmas special or two.
As we went through the process today, I found myself thinking more and more about these traditions and the others that Jennifer and I have established in our nine years together. We've had almost a decade for these traditions and patterns to evolve. We've created the routines, whether it's for a once-a-year event like trimming the tree to how we typically spend our weekend mornings. They're comfortable and easy now, like a pair of well-worn slippers as we've always been a family of two.
Despite having thought long and hard about it, I don't think I really have any idea of just how dramatically our lives, our routines, and our traditions will be changing in the coming year as we hopefully expand our little family from two to three. In truth, I can't wait.
I see my sister and brother in law with their kids and for years have been envious. Now, I watch them for tips and tricks. One of their Christmas traditions has been "The Elf on the Shelf" for the last two years. The elf made his first appearance of 2009 the morning after Thanksgiving when we were staying with my sister and it was wonderful to see the dawning realization on my four-year old niece's face when she saw the saw the elf smiling at her from a shelf in the kitchen. I am so excited by the prospect of sharing this with our Plus One that I almost went out and bought a copy. Of course, we'll be adopting a newborn so there's no real rush. However, the anticipation of being able to do that is wonderful.
Tonight we watched the 1970 "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" with voices by Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney along with the despicable Burgermeister Meisterburger along with the classic "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" as he discovers the Island of Misfit Toys (resurrected this year in a brilliant cell phone ad). I love the idea of introducing Plus One to these classics along with "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "It's Wonderful Life" and all of the other songs and shows and movies without which Christmas would feel somewhat incomplete.
But more than anything, I can't stop smiling at the thought of the Christmas traditions and the other traditions that Jennifer and I and Plus One will discover together. What's the fun of having traditions is you can't create new ones while passing along those that mean so much to you? Though truth be told, I'll be sorry to see the whole "sleeping in on weekend mornings" routine fall by the wayside.