O Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree

Tom CallawayBy Tom Callaway

HERE COME THE HOLIDAYS and all the excitement and pressure of everything they have come to represent. I only need to hear the word “Christmas” and, (no longer being much of a religious type), I immediately conjure up my life long intimate relationship with the Christmas Tree. What once was the ultimate anticipation of a magical transformation of some shaggy, green-needled, outdoor bush into a glowing indoor masterpiece of twinkling wonderment, has, somewhere along the line of over 60 Christmas mornings, turned into a dull throbbing in my skull of the hours of labor, worry, and exhaustion to come my way in the very near future. What once had been my supreme expression of pride-filled artistic powers has evolved into a numbing and dreaded chore that defies description as November leans toward December. Without ever seeing it coming, I guess I’ve turned from “The Little Drummer Boy” into “The Grinch”.

As many of you may know, the historical roots of decorating a live tree with nuts, berries, apples and the like, around Renaissance Germany, and other examples of similar  ceremonies even earlier in the history of mankind, has evolved through time and place (particularly Bavaria and Victorian England) to become the center piece of most homes during the annual winter holidays in the western world.  Fruit and nuts turned into glass balls and garlands.  Evergreen trees covered in lighted candles in jolly old England burned many a merry making house to the ground.  Electric strings of colored lights followed, usually pulled from the catch all attic in jumbled, knotted strands to the consternation of every adult male asked to untangle them.

It was such a moment in the history of man, that I entered this wintry scene at age three or four, (in post World War Two America), in a small town in the snowy north of upper Wisconsin. My mother was one of the older children in a Wisconsin German/American family of eight kids. Her father was an electrical genius, having left formal education in the 5th grade, to eventually become the City Electrician…a revered post during the Depression Era, similar in stature and costume to the fire chief, with navy blue uniformed cap and a coat covered in two rows of brass buttons. Attaining the perfect Christmas tree was his particular  obsession. He passed this fanaticism on to my mother, who closely watched his process of tree creation, and she in turn maneuvered it into my poor father’s domain. My Dad had the poor judgment to be an exceptional master craftsman in woodworking, so, of course, the duties of tree creation fell firmly into his lap, with my perfectionist, German bred mother there to coax him to the highest attainable heights in the art of Christmas Tree articulation.

My Grandfather’s system began with a meticulous search from frozen tree lot to tree lot for the perfect top, middle, and bottom of Balsom evergreen magnificence. He would purchase three trees to create his ultimate ONE and thus began a life long process of sawing, drilling, dowelling, gluing, branch placing and thread tying that has been passed along, to be ultimately laid at my feet, as the last of the perfect tree creators. In my Grandparents Christmas tradition, the tree did not arrive in advance, but was miraculously brought AND decorated by Santa at each and every house on his Christmas Eve trip around the world. What a guy, this Santa. Talk about magic, Santa held the ultimate super powers in my childish head.  Only Jesus could have bested him if put to the test.  Super Man and the like were mere shadows of heroes compared to my Santa imaginations. It didn’t hurt that the fella who played Santa at the local department store was a damn good actor, who happened to have a damn good Santa outfit, along with a chuckling, rumbling voice, which sold me hook, line, and sinker.

Focus-XmasAnyway, after my Grandfather and “Santa” had created a one night, perfect tree, (after all eight kids were asleep), there wasn’t time for perfect decorating.  After he had the lights  straightened and perfectly attached, Grand dad’s attention span had vanished, and the tinsel was tossed, the ornaments were askew, and the angel on top looked like a tipsy female drunk leaving  the corner tavern in a white silk slip. After downing a case of Adler Brau Beer, the local brew, he would collapse into a stupor that allowed his four rambunctious boys to wake up to BB guns and tomahawks.  In no time, the tree became target practice, with many a glass ball bursting into shards while the four girls screamed and ran for cover.  The perfect tree, needing a miraculous makeover, was soon in my Mother’s capable hands.  She replaced every light, every ball, and straightened every strand of tinsel icicles, one piece at a time.  Around four PM, Grandpa would rouse from his post all-nighter slumber to descend the steps from his upstairs bedroom.  There before his eyes stood the perfect tree. He, Santa, and my Mom had performed their ritual of magic and holiday art.

By the time I came along, the BB guns were gone.  Grandpa’s tree went up a couple of days before Christmas so that we grand kids could visit for our presents after church on Christmas Eve. I was the youngest grandchild, so the entire family of grandparents, aunts and uncles and older cousins all focused their joy of Christmas toward my wide and believing eyes. After ten whole years of this adoration as my parent’s  only child, three other kids were born into our brood, and now I was the keeper of the Yuletide flame…the “born to decorate” tree expert.  While my poor, exhausted Dad would perform the (three into one) tree alteration each year, my Mom and I would tie up every drilled branch and hang every ornament. We’d shop for every present, and wrap them all night long before the other little one’s would wake to find the magic they came to expect under our ever-perfect tree. I had seen the process my entire life, and I had become the chosen one. It wasn’t long before I was the bundled up tree picker on those frozen tree lots, and the swearing carpenter reshaping our masterpiece. I put on the lights, hung almost every ball, and became the maestro of hanging garland and glass beads.

When it came time for my own household, my own wife and child, I couldn’t wait to dazzle them with the array of tree wizardry I had at my disposal.  For 35 Christmases I wove my spell…the most amazing Christmas Tree they could imagine came to life in our home each December. I was so driven to keep the flame in my hands that neither my wife or son were allowed to really participate, except to watch and listen to me struggle, curse, and complain, asking the holiday gods how in the world was I burdened with this unforgiving task?  How was I the only one who could make a perfect tree? Just like my father before me, how did the thought of the holidays coming make my head start to pound, and the pressure start to build?

Maybe perfect isn’t so perfect. Christmas glee passed away with the passing of my father and my wife a year or so ago. My son has grown into a wonderful young man. But I didn’t pass the “perfect tree” gene on to him. Maybe better to let it fade away. Then again… if a grandchild should someday come my way, maybe Santa and I will join forces once more to make some Christmas Eve magic before a cocktail or two sends me into deep winter slumber, only to wake to the glow of another perfect tree.

About the author:
Tom Callaway is an interior designer and architect, living in Brentwood.

  • Erin Castellino
    Posted at 00:18h, 05 December

    Such a great story Tom. Thank you for sharing!

  • Mary Kanaman
    Posted at 13:49h, 05 December

    What a great history of the Christmas tree and your family.