If you are a Christmas tree aficionado … If you wait all year to let your inner Martha Stewart run rampant with ribbon and garland and tinsel, oh my! … If you summarily reject ornaments because they are not the “right” shade of Christmas red … If, to put it mildly, you are a Christmas tree-decorating perfectionist … then these are the words that will strike fear into your holly jolly heart like a candy-cane shiv:
Mommy! I wanna decorate the tree! By MYSELF!
So there we all were — me, my husband Stewart and our 7-year-old son Fletcher — the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We’d just polished off the leftovers my sister had sent home with us from her grand feast. And once the last of the sweet potatoes and stuffing and cranberries had been scraped from their plastic containers, Stewart decided it was Time To Put Up The Tree. Nothing shakes off a tryptophan stupor like testing tree lights and schlepping boxes of ornaments down from the upstairs closets.
Regular readers know that I attach no religious importance to this particular symbol of the Christmas holiday. I am an atheistic Jew, married to an atheist WASP. We put up a tree because A) it’s pretty B) I love the scent of pine — even if it’s just that stuff we spritz all over our fake tree like perfume, and C) because even though I am not crafty or even particularly artistic, there is something about Christmas that brings out my inner interior decorator.
Alas, my inner decorator is also a bit of a bitch. With a wicked case of OCD.
Despite the lack of Christmas tradition in my traditional Jewish upbringing, I have seen the Hallmark movies. I know how this tree-decorating thing is supposed to go. I get that families are meant to decorate the tree together, drinking hot cocoa as Bing Crosby sings about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But to my mind that’s like asking for Christmas chaos. I have a system. I have a process. I have a plan. It’s very possible I also have a Christmas Tree Decorating Disorder.
It bothers me when there are too many snowflake ornaments clumped together. I start twerking like Miley if the proportion of bows to balls is off. I’ll spend days rearranging extra ornaments in a glass bowl, shifting the balls around and around till I find the right distribution pattern of reds to golds to silvers that looks like I casually tossed them together in a moment.
“DON’T PUT THAT THERE!” I’ll snap when my husband starts hanging ornaments, willy nilly. “Hanging ornaments, just anywhere? Are you mad, man?!?”
And that would be his cue to back slowly out of the room and go hide out at Loews, leaving me to drive myself crazy decorating the tree in peace.
But while I can roust my husband from the scene — he’d rather be doing manly things at Loews anyway — I couldn’t very well deprive my child of this seminal childhood experience. How else would he grow up to know why his future wife was yelling at him for doing it all wrong?
“ALL THE ORNAMENTS ARE GLASS, so be careful,” I cautioned as Fletcher and I carried box after box of ornaments down the stairs. He didn’t even hear me. He was finally old enough to really decorate the tree, and he couldn’t wait to tear into the boxes and find the treasures within. Within moments of the last box being set on the floor, the living room was a mess of red, gold and silver glass balls, green wire hangers, shreds of garland and glitter. I felt my blood pressure starting to rise.
“Spread them around so they’re not all in one place,” I directed as Fletcher started to hang the glitter snowflakes on the tree. I tried to remember to breathe.
“I KNOW, Mommy.” I could hear the annoyance in his voice. But before it could fully curdle into 7-year-old attitude, Fletcher let out a delighted squeal. “Oooh, Mommy!” He held up two ornaments, one orange; the other blue. “Where should these go?”
I felt my OCD shift into overdrive. Stewart had brought these particular ornaments home from Target a few years before. They were bright. They were festive. And they clashed completely with the red and gold baubles I dressed our tree with each year. I hated them.
Most years I conspired to keep them buried deep in the ornament box.
“Hmmm. Let Mommy think while I pee, okay?”
I beelined it to my own bathroom, shut the door and sat on the toilet.
It doesn’t have to be perfect … It doesn’t have to be perfect … It doesn’t have to be perfect I chanted to myself, fingers pressed to my temples.
Who was I kidding? OF COURSE the tree had to be perfect. I wanted it to be perfect. That’s the joy I get out of the holiday. No matter how crazy I made myself and those around me in the process.
But then I thought of Fletcher in the living room, happily hanging shiny ornaments willy nilly, utterly unbothered by the fact that three gold balls were hanging right next to each other. I sighed. Oy gevalt, as my Jewish grandmother would say. It wouldn’t be the first time I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas.
Suck it up, Buttercup, I said to the me in the mirror.
So I took a deep breath, wrestled my inner Martha into a strait jacket, and said the Christmas tree version of the Serenity Prayer for good measure:
Grant me … the serenity to accept the ornament arrangements I cannot change … the stealth to arrange the rest of the ornaments as I can … and the wisdom not to rip the tree apart and do the whole fucking thing over again after the kiddo goes to bed.
Then I headed, bravely, back to the living room. Fletcher was using a kitchen chair as a step-stool to hang ornaments from the highest branches. I cringed when I saw that he’d hung the hideous orange and blue ornaments just where I’d see them every time I walked past.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, I reminded myself.
“Mommy! Guess what I found!” Fletcher looked up excited. “All the decorations I made in nursery school! Let’s put those on the tree!”
It doesn’t have to be perfect I reminded myself as the magic-markered reindeer and the paper circles strung with ribbon got added.
“Ooh! Remember when I got this at Lego Club?” Fletcher held up a clear plastic ball containing a scattering of tiny multi-colored Legos, the kind I usually throw in the trash after a model is built.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, I said as he found a place for it at eye level on the tree.
“And look! Mommy!” Fletcher reverently lifted a large plastic, silver ornament the size of a softball out of the box. It was covered in colored-pencil scribble and paint and dotted with peel-n-stick foam pieces. He’d decorated it at a street fair last year. It is truly one of the ugliest “art” projects I have ever seen.
“I forgot about this one—” he said dreamily. “THIS one definitely goes in the front.”
I gritted my teeth and swallowed hard. Then I climbed on the chair and busied myself with the enormous white and gold ribbon that tops our tree. It doesn’t have to be perfect … it doesn’t have to be perfect. Still, I fussed with the loops and the long ties till that damn ribbon looked exactly right. I climbed back down and stood next to Fletcher as he looked over his handiwork. And I realized that braided through the branches was the brief history of his own short life, with ornaments marking every Christmas season he was able to remember celebrating.
“How does it look, Mommy?”
The Christmas tree wasn’t perfect. But, as it turned out, it was beautiful.