“But it’s not really Christmas unless you have a REAL tree!” I sputtered, aghast that my new, young husband would consider placing a spindly, artificial Christmas tree anywhere in the vicinity of my living space.
I grew up in a home where Christmas was simply not Christmas unless you had a real tree, and the bigger the better.
The glory and delight of the holiday season began with Dad bringing home our tree sometime mid-December, and each year he outdid himself with a bigger tree than the year before. In order to be the proper Christmas tree, it needed to touch the ceiling yet not bend. It had to smell fantastic, with large boughs that would hold the weight of lights, garland, and ornaments. One year it was so wide that it took up half the living room, and we had to move some of the furniture out.
The unspoken message was that the bigger and better the tree, the more joy in the holiday.
Putting up the tree involved my dad hanging the tree in the garage for a day or two to let excess needles drop, which also allowed him time to properly saw off the bottom so that the tree could suck up the much needed water throughout the rest of the month of December. This sawing had to be done evenly so the tree would sit flat in the stand and not lean.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity for us children, the tree would be brought inside. My father would crawl under the massive green giant and begin the adjustments in the tree stand. My mother would stand in the center of the living room and call out directions. Arguing would ensue about why the tree wouldn’t GO to the left because the trunk was crooked.
Then there were snappy comebacks about how we should just get an artificial tree like everyone else does and be done with it already, but we children knew it was just false talk. It wouldn’t be Christmas with a fake tree.
As we strung lights, Dad would tell us about how his family got their tree on Christmas Eve night, and the kids woke up to see the tree as a surprise on Christmas morning. We were lucky to get to enjoy our tree for several weeks, not just a few days.
Finally the tree was finished. We would run to turn off all the lights in the house, sit in the darkness, and admire our work of holiday art. This was Christmas, and it was magical.
So, when I was a young bride who stubbornly insisted that it’s just not Christmas without a real tree, my husband went along with my wishes even though his family had always had an artificial tree in their home.
Adulthood brought tough realities. I was shocked to discover purchasing a real tree quickly drained the majority of our holiday shopping budget. Sap leaked on the floor and was impossible to clean. Needles dropped and clogged our vacuum cleaner. Water spilled all over the floor. When the cat climbed up the already wobbly tree and knocked it over for the third time (breaking half our ornaments), I was ready to trade in the whole mess and run to Target for something solidly artificial.
Still, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a real tree. I would not give in to the fakeness! My dad had died several years before, and it felt like somehow dishonoring his memory not to do Christmas just exactly like he had done.
We soldiered on with purchasing a real Christmas tree each year. While I enjoyed the beautiful pine smell and the unique beauty, I was secretly ready to trade the whole hassle. Enough already.
Several years later, our third son was born sweet, happy — and wheezy. I had the excuse I needed. We would purchase an artificial tree.
When my husband came home with the large cardboard box of plastic evergreen, I felt a tremendous sense of relief.
I also felt like a traitor. Would it really be Christmas with an artificial tree?
Here is what I discovered in the year of the first artificial tree, and in the years that followed.
Traditions are an anchor. In a world that is continually swirling and changing, we need these rituals and reminders that hold us solidly to what we value and believe. We say, “Yes! This is who I am and what I believe. This is me.”
It’s not the tradition that matters so much, but the memory or value to which it anchors us.
An anchor is a heavy weight. When we need to stay still, it’s solid and heavy. An anchor keep us grounded. Yet when the time comes to move on, the restriction can be too tight and even pull us down.
Just like the captain of a ship who makes the choice to drop the anchor or not, we choose to use a tradition or move on to something new. Either way, our memories and values are solidly secure.
This year my family will gather around our artificial Christmas tree, and I’ll tell my kids stories about their grandpa and his obsession with real Christmas trees. We will start our own traditions. My children will create their own unique memories, with the old and the new interwoven.
The anchor is solidly secure.