One of the first Christmas specials I remember was Charles Schulz’s classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The centerpiece of the story is the tree Charlie Brown picks out to decorate the gang’s Christmas pageant. Amid the fancifully colored artificial trees, he spies a real tree, so tiny it could properly be deemed a branch. Unsurprisingly, the gang (who, let’s face it, are often not nice people) mock him mercilessly for his choice. After Linus sets them straight as to the true meaning of Christmas, he takes his tree and attempts to decorate it, but it is too flimsy to bear even a single ornament. Defeated, Charlie Brown slinks away, but the gang shows up and decorates the tree which, when showered with love (according to Linus), grows into a beautiful Christmas tree.
Throughout our growing-up years and well beyond, my parents put up a Christmas tree. Family lore includes the story of my older sister’s first Christmas, when my well-meaning father spent hours setting up the train tracks and village under the tree, only to have his toddler daughter and her same-age cousin destroy the entire display. The year I was five, my parents set up the tree in the otherwise-unfurnished dining room on Christmas Eve so it would be part of the Christmas morning excitement. A few years later, when everyone but Dad was sick in December, he bought our first artificial tree, which meant that in subsequent years, we were able to set the tree up earlier in December without concerns about it drying out. With no small children in the house, we were able to set up train tracks and villages under the tree; I still have some of those figurines, and I still set them up.
Charlotte, posing for scale
My first Christmas tree in my first apartment was small, though not as tiny as Charlie Brown’s. It had to be—the apartment itself was miniscule. Still, the tree was real, and this was a big deal to me. My parents had purchased their first artificial tree when I was eight, and the notion of having an actual freshly-cut tree was intoxicating. The only problem was that I didn’t actually have room for a Christmas tree. Undaunted, I bought the smallest tree on the lot–barely two feet high. I decorated it with two boxes of jewel-colored glass balls. To the top bough I attached a pre-tied lace bow because that was all the weight it could bear. My mother gave me my favorite ornament from our family tree, a bluebird with pink and gold, which I hung front and center.
Two years later, I had moved to a larger apartment where I could finally put up a “real” tree. When I told Mom I planned to buy a full-sized tree, she responded, “But why? There’s just you.” Considering that I’d just broken up with a serious boyfriend a few weeks earlier, the comment was a tad insensitive. For me, though, the bigger concern was that I now had two cats, one of whom was barely three months old. I had no idea how they’d behave with the big tree; I’d heard all sorts of stories about cats climbing Christmas trees, batting off the ornaments or even knocking the tree over. In an effort to stave off disaster, I obtained rolls of multicolored cloth ribbon, and a friend and I tied bows all over the tree in lieu of ornaments. It turned out to be a brilliant idea: the cats barely showed any interest in the tree, and when it was time to take it down, all I had to do was remove the lights and haul it down to the dumpster.
The “before” photo
The next year, I bought a full-sized live tree for my home and a smaller one for the office. I left the big tree on my parents’ deck until it was time to bring it in, and I put the small one in a bucket of water in the kitchen. That night, the kitten chewed on a piece of branch and nearly choked. The next day, I purchased my first artificial tree.
I’ve put up a tree nearly every year since. In my first year of law school, a friend came over after exams to help me trim it. The following year, before exams began, I invited several people over for a tree-trimming party. Other years, I’ve put the tree up on my own, a solo task while Christmas movies played on the VCR.
The only year I didn’t put up a tree was when I was moving to a new apartment on New Year’s. It didn’t make sense to get out ornaments and decorations when I was supposed to be packing everything else. Luckily, a man with whom I was on the verge of being in a relationship was originally from New York City, and so he took me to see the decorations in the city, including the tree at Rockefeller Center.
In recent years, putting up the tree has sometimes felt like more of a chore than a delight. I’m not certain what’s given rise to the change, whether it’s the crush of holiday tasks on top of personal and professional obligations. Then again, maybe it’s been the trees themselves. For example, when I moved into my house, I decided I’d develop a new tradition of cutting my own tree, which sounded like a rustic New England thing to do. In the end, though, the hassle and mess of dragging in a fresh tree, keeping it watered, and getting it back out in time for the town to pick it up proved to be more bother than it was worth. Plus, I’d become accustomed to the rigid artificial branches that allow you to place even the heaviest ornaments wherever you like, and having to arrange my decorations around the strength or flimsiness of a particular branch was surprisingly irritating. So after a couple years, I purchased a prelit tree. That one worked fairly well (except for the need to reshape every branch each year, a chore that consumed half an evening) until the original lights began to die out and I ended up compensating by stringing new lights, another time-consuming task.
As I did all this work, my mother’s long-ago remark about how it’s just for me echoed. In any given year, I know it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who sees my Christmas tree. I also know people who have stopped putting up a tree because their circumstances have changed–the roommate has relocated, the kids have moved out, the marriage has dissolved. Like my mother, their position is that they don’t want to bother with a tree if it’s just for them, which makes no more sense to me than when they say that they don’t want to prepare a meal if they’re eating alone. (I almost wish I could adopt that approach; I’d probably be a lot thinner.)
But here’s what I’ve discovered: having your own private Christmas tree is an incredible privilege.You can decorate it exactly as you like, without regard for anybody else’s preferences. You can be as creative as you want. White lights or multi-colored, steady or flashing, large bulbs or miniatures, or even no lights at all—it’s up to you. If you like garland or tinsel, you can put it on, and if not, not. (I discovered gold-bead garland at a local shop a number of years ago, and I adore its delicate, old-fashioned drape around the tree.) Some people like to decorate according to a color scheme; others love eclectic family heirloom ornaments; still others are fond of theme trees, such as animals or angels or sports. The farm stand up the road has a glorious display of Christmas decorations and theme trees, all decorated by their resident tree artist, Christopher.
If you want to have more than one tree, each decorated according to a different theme or motif, go ahead. Whether you like clear glass ornaments with multicolored lights or old-fashioned paper chains and popcorn, it’s up to you. If you prefer having the tree in the bedroom so you can see it first thing in the morning, go for it. (Just don’t leave the lights on at night; fire hazards are not festive.)
If you want the most effortless version, try a simple tabletop predecorated tree. When I was in college, my mother sent me an inflatable Christmas tree for my dorm room. I have a small gold-colored tree with jewel-toned ornaments that requires nothing more than being taken out of its storage box; ditto with an angel-topped music box Mom passed down to me. Alternatively, a quick online search will turn up dozens upon dozens of live, potted, or artificial trees that will be delivered to your door, ornaments in place, requiring you only to unpack and enjoy.
The other kind
When my parents used to travel, Mom would buy locally-made ornaments instead of tchotchkes. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this idea. As a result, decorating my tree evokes memories of visits to places from Vancouver to Captiva Island. Last year, Mom gave me some ornaments she’d received from her mother as well as others from my parents’ first Christmas as a married couple. Now, my tree will carry reminders of my heritage.
Two years ago, I bought a new artificial tree during an off-season sale. (The company recommended setting it up upon receipt to ensure everything worked, which meant that my living room literally looked like Christmas in July.) This tree has proven to be delightfully simple to set up, which means I can spend nearly no time reshaping branches (and no time at all stringing lights), and more time selecting the ornaments I feel like displaying this year. I haven’t yet hung the gold-bead garland and the ornaments, but the tree is in place and the boxes of ornaments are waiting to be unpacked. As always, the bluebird will be the first ornament I place on the tree and the last one I remove.
Olivia, also posing for scale
Of all the traditions of the holiday season, the Christmas tree stands out. If you were thinking about skipping it this year, may I respectfully encourage you to think again. Whether your tree is tiny or tall, live or plastic, predecorated or your own creation, it lends a special, festive feel that nothing else quite matches.
Just ask Charlie Brown.