One of the strongest emotions I have always associated with Christmas has been waiting. I know “waiting” is not technically a dictionary-defined emotion, but I have no other word to describe what a kid goes through during the month of December. The endless, tortuous, cruel, twisting-your-gut waiting.
Waiting until the cookies are cool before you eat them. Waiting for school to end and vacation to start. Waiting for that Saturday afternoon when you can finally get the tree. Waiting until it is light on Christmas morning before getting out of bed.
My parents had always waited until the second week of December to get our tree. I remember that to be the official start of the holidays for us. After waiting until well after most of our friends had their trees, we would head on over to the nearest tree farm and begin the selection process that would take 4 days it seemed.
That one has scoliosis.
Why, a small jungle village could live in the hole in the side of that one.
Charlie Brown's had more needles on it than that bald thing.
After my mother's colorful protests, night would be falling, and it was impossible to see any imperfections anyway, so we would settle on the first one we looked at when we arrived. We would lug the thing across the well-trampled snow leaving a trail of needles and pine cones behind us. My Dad would then spend another hour and a half rigging the obtuse bush upon the roof of our station wagon with 47 bungee cords that merely served as rappelling cable for the tree to sway back and forth.
Now, to a child, the nuance of a Christmas tree “settling” is the cruelest form of Yule-tide torment. To have to stare at that barren tree for days with anticipatory tinsel in hand watching for the invisible progression of “settling,” was unbearable. Then, after this miraculous process finally completed itself (and seeing absolutely no difference) my Dad would then haul the tree inside and begin to string the lights.
The stringing of the lights was another elusive and time-consuming process of the tree trimming ceremony. Only Dad could complete this seemingly simple, yet made decisively more complicated, task. I don't know if it was some ancient male right of passage (sort of like carving the turkey) but only he was delegated for this. Which meant more waiting. And waiting.
I think that strands of lights must have cost like $400 per bulb back in the 70's, because I remember having the same 5 death traps my entire childhood. They would get so remarkably hot, that the tree could only be lit from 6-9 p.m. for fear that the house would burn to the ground. There was also one lone pink strand with a white cord that would stick out so ostentatiously against the green boughs. I remember my mother hating it, but yet replacement was never even considered.
So finally, after Dad the electrician got to the century mark with the extension cords, it was time to decorate! We would crack open the water-stained cardboard boxes and place the ornaments carefully on the tree. My sister and I always fought whose personalized ornament would be front and center (and as another aside, mine would be the one that was spelled wrong, because the stock ‘Tracy' never put the ‘e' in, which still ticks me off to no end even now.) My Mom would be playing one of our two Christmas records -- either Lynn Anderson or Sesame Street -- and we would drink egg nog and eat popcorn that was popped on the stove.
And then for 3 blessed weeks, I would come downstairs in the mornings and my mother would be sitting on the couch drinking her coffee, waiting for us to wake up. Her face was serene and beautiful radiating in the cool glow of that tree. I used to think it odd that there was nothing playing -- no television, no radio, no children -- just her in the morning silence not even reading the paper yet. But falling under the same spell, I'd wrap up in a waft of pine perfume and my blanket and join her in that morning rapture. I'd look over at her, and she'd smile, and then I would look back at the lights making blurry vision and sending the rays from those tiny bulbs a thousand miles.
I realize maybe some things are worth waiting for.
[Photos: Selecting a tree -- Times files; Christmas light blunders -- photos.com]