The Christmas tree and the TV set: If they were made for each other, why keep them apart?

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:34 AM

Christmas is watched on television at least as much as it actually lived, if not more.

The star in the East? That warm light in the heart? It's high-def, beamed in, DVR'd. A pine-and-spice scented candle can work its sensory magic, and the chestnuts are supposed to be roasting by an open fire, but pretty soon you have to face facts: The candle is a Glade PlugIn; the fireplace is controlled by a light switch; and the TV is on again, where Christmas always looks more like itself.

What do we do when we at last come together? We watch TV.

To some, this sounds awfully tragic. Shouldn't we be gathered around the piano instead of the Wii? Shouldn't the TV be off while we enjoy one another's company? Shouldn't we, instead of watching football games and the umpteenth encore of "A Christmas Story," be walking the cobblestone streets of our snowy neighborhoods, singing carols to our neighbors?

All that Christmas idealism is sustained by television. Everything we know about how Christmas should appear and feel, we learned from watching Christmas happen on TV to people who don't exist. Have a look at the pretty, pretty trees in all those living rooms and in all those diamond necklace ads and in Hallmark specials. What's the one thing missing from these people's homes?

Correct: No TVs are on. The people we see on television at Christmastime have chosen to put their tree up in a formal living room, safely away from the television. You know them as well as you know your own family. He went to Jared! We bought you a Lexus with a giant red bow on it! And Peter's made it home, just in time for Christmas morning, and he's brewed a fresh pot of Folgers to rouse us from our slumber!

In fact, the people having those wonderful holidays on TV don't need TVs. It's as if they know how badly we need to watch what they're doing (and how they're doing it, and how happy they are), but they are fine without watching us. Only Best Buy and other home electronics purveyors would ever dream up commercials in which familial bliss is achieved with bigger and better TVs.

Which summons a real debate in some households. Should the tree actually be near the television? Or should it be erected safely away from all the secular distraction and crass commercialism that TV represents?

In actual families (instead of TV families), where the square footage of the house or apartment can sometimes allow for zoning restrictions in holiday decor, someone (often Mom) hopes to create a more sacred space by putting the Christmas tree in a TV-less room.

Some people put up several trees. The "big" tree (the thematic, more Martha Stewart-y tree) graces the TV-free living room while a slightly smaller "family" tree (adorned with the mismatchy chaos of sentimental ornaments; stuff the kids made in first grade) dominates the TV room.

I happen to think the Christmas tree and the TV set should coexist almost as one, within feet of each other, so that you may look at both. It's more honest that way.

I first came to this conclusion at the age of 14, when the tree my mother and I cut down turned out to be too big for the usual spot in the formal living room and instead wound up in a corner of the room my family called "the den." This created an unholy trinity from every vantage point: Our wood-paneled Zenith TV set, the Christmas tree, the fireplace.

That same year, cable TV came to our street, and so the holiday passed in an ecstatic haze of watching free HBO and Showtime, zoning out to videos on MTV (Billy Squier and all the VJs singing "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You"), screaming at football games and playing marathon sessions of Asteroids on Atari. The only time the TV wasn't on that Christmas was while we opened presents on the morning of Dec. 25.

But at some point, someone turned it on; someone always does. What is Christmas without the sound of sports announcers and instant-replay swooshes? What is an Advent season without the ritual of anticipatory TV - Charlie Brown and Rankin/Bass and Rockefeller Center and the Food Network, all connected by a gooey concoction of commercials? Sometimes we complain about this. (Q: What did you do for Christmas? A: We watched too much TV.)

The soothing blinking of the tree and the frantic flickering of a TV screen somehow form a visual duet, and create the true light of the modern American Christmas. This is maybe more ancient than we realize. We are still just human beings huddled by the light in the dark of winter, making up stories to tell one another about elves and magic and redemption.

You watch the fiction of Christmas with the lights of your own tree reflected in the edge of the screen. Who cares if the TV people are not our relatives? Who cares if they don't actually exist? In some weird way, they are as real as anything else Christmas has to offer.

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