The tree comes in the house Christmas Eve. Not a moment before. Who it was who first insisted on holding out until that day, no one in the family can now recall; and in spite of pressures from the new generation of children in the family, from department store hype and from Christmas catalogs that arrive in October, still we cling tenaciously to that tradition.
This is not to say that the tree is bought on Christmas Eve, when only the gnarled and infirm are propped up in the thinned- out, overlit tree lots, when any self-respecting tree farmer has returned to his family and his woods and when only the rogues remain. No, the tree is bought weeks in advance, carefully selected for posture and fullness, hoisted onto the padded roof of the car, coddled, buttressed and borne home.
It is always a balsam these days, since years ago the long needles of a Scotch pine clogged the vacuum cleaner so badly that the whole thing had to be overhauled; and it is always set upright in a bucket of water on the sheltered side of the house, at the foot of the back porch stairs. There, with its branches curled up against the wind, it rests like a tranquilized patient waiting for the anesthesia of cold to wear off. The bucket is heavy, durable, so solid that--weather permitting--by precisely Dec. 24 the tree trunk is completely encased in ice.
And so it comes to pass that in just about any year of the Lord A.D., the men of the family go forth unto the back porch on Christmas Eve morning, and, by pouring scalding water on the frozen trunk and hacking at the ice with an ax, wrest the tree from the bucket and carry it horizontally and quite unceremoniously up the side path. Many years ago, it was painfully determined that the back-door passage required too many twists and turns to reach the living room. Yet, at the front door, the women wait like watchdogs, barking directions to steer the tree-bearers under the small chandelier, around the glass doors of the bookcase, away from the Chinese lamp, to the tree's final resting place in front of the fireplace.
As the men attempt to upright the tree, we inevitably learn that it is a good foot too tall. We stopped feeling guilty about it long ago. Instead, the gay and sprightly top is whacked off with the pruning shears and plopped into the dining room table centerpiece. And Nature, being prone to proportion, dictates that if the top is too high the bottom will most likely be too wide for the metal Christmas tree stand. So the ax is brought around from the back porch and the tree trunk--soggy and horizontal again on the good living room rug--is whittled to a point then bolted in. The men, with hands sticky from the now-flowing tree sap, upright the tree for the last time. The scent begins to fill the room.
The most agile adult in the room--the one who has not had back surgery, torn cartilage or shin splints in the past year--is elected to climb the kitchen footstool and begin the arduous entwining of the tree lights, while the rest of the family sit on sofas, pointing out bare spots, places where the wiring is too obvious, too taut, too bunched. Periodically, the stringer descends and allows his work to be illuminated so that the seated chorus can note that there are too many blues at the top, that the blinking lights are all together and that we need to camouflage those few ghastly lights with plastic overlays that are supposed to look like twinkling snowflakes. When the last string of lights is entwined and--God willing--winds up miraculously near the wall outlet, the tree is again illuminated briefly. Still there are flaws, dark limbs, open wounds. But from the weight of the wires and the warmth of the house, the trees' branches begin to lower, to accommodate, to reach out into the room.
The ornaments are stored in two deep carboard boxes, each ornament wrapped in Christmas paper so old that it is now as thin as tissue and falls away easily, offers little protection. At the bottom of one box are the first ornaments my parents bought, during the war, when metal was precious, impossible to find: simple round balls of yellow, green, blue or red glass. As children, we hung them in precarious spots, hoping that they would fall and shatter and that other ornaments--the rose and blue metallic with pink and gold insets--would be bought as replacements. And so the glass balls' numbers have diminished; yet they persist. And, in recent years we have begun to revere them, to hang them more securely, on well-lit branches in the front.
The other ornaments were purchased or received gradually, a collection ranging from elegant to atrocious, all symbols of the triumphs in good taste and the miserable errors in judgment that any family can make. A fragile silver tin gingerbread house with a golden roof always hangs from the most prominent branch. But the twin peacocks--bright blue and irridescent green with beady eyes and tails of toilet-bowl brush--are inevitably clamped to the end of a back branch, which bobs from their weight. The twin black bills peck foolishly at nothingness throughout the Christmas vacation.
The children now in the house have different favorites: a wooden elf on skis or an angel with a cotton head and a bright red satin dress. A few years ago, the West Coast nephews made ornaments from dough (where else but California?). Some of these blobs, painted and glazed so as not to look edible--even to East Coast children--were sent along with the Christmas gifts, and they are hung from the lower branches of the tree by peers who are attracted to them, understand them, recognize the face of Santa in an adorable blob that we thought was a jingle bell.
These days there are many hands on the tree, emptying the ornament boxes too quickly, too randomly. The room is full of women and men who have married into the family, newcomers who do not feel the way we do about the glass balls, to whom the ice frozen in the bucket seems an unexpected sidelight, who do not know how predetermined is the position of the tin gingerbread house. We spare them the details.
And the children, with their own rich minds, their fantasies, are still so unentrenched, so patternless, their movements are so random and so free. They do not yet know what it is to sit with one's family, to inhale the scent of balsam and to relive all the years, the high expectations and dashed hopes, the presents given, but the gifts never remembered, never received.
And as Christmas Eve begins to darken, the family finds itself quiet, mollified, always slightly saddened, sitting in the living room illuminated only by the tree's lights. Tradition gets us through these eves, and it is why--in all the photographs from the past and in all the minds' eyes--the tree always looks the same. It is one less stranger in the room.