Growing up, my family was a Christmas family. Never mind that we were bonafide “Christmas and Easter” Christians, both my parents held their childhood Christmas traditions dear and passed them to us daughters.
My mom loves her Christmas trees. Sometimes she shows restraint and waits until after American Thanksgiving to trim the trees (plural) but more often than not, it’s the day after Hallowe’en and she has my dad dragging her countless boxes of Christmases past from storage.
Mom has two trees. Her “fancy” tree that glows in the living room window toward the street, covered in intricate, special bulbs gifted to her through the years. It’s lit with twinkly white lights and flocked with powdered sugar snow and it’s so beautiful. Her “cheerful” tree is tucked into the little curve of the front staircase, narrow and standing nearly 12 feet tall. It’s an impressive sight, a multicolour tower sighing with the weight of 31 Christmases of bulbs, each ornament vying for space on the branches. There’s never enough space.
Before I had a home of my own, in my childhood bedroom on Cousineau, I collected ornaments for my someday tree, just like mom’s. Each season, I’d scour the shops for a bulb or two to add to my shoebox on the closet shelf. With each yearly addition, I’d take out earlier specimens and inspect them fondly. Through school and my first years in Toronto, the box stayed tucked away for that someday tree.
When I first lived on my own, having a tree was impractical, as I’d always leave town well before the holiday to be in Windsor with family. They had all the trees I needed. But through the years, as I negotiated my identity within a home of my own and city of my own, it felt right to have a tree for the season.
Last Christmas, I pulled my shoebox off the shelf and asked Austin if we could put up a tree. My husband isn’t religious, but he is half-Jewish by his father and was raised in a Jewish home. I wanted to be sure he was comfortable with an eight-foot evergreen hanging out in our living room for a month, after 26 years without one. This wasn’t an inextricable part of his identity as it was mine — it may even be an unwelcome one, and I was okay with that. I knew within our marriage we would arrive at traditions that made sense for our little family, and us alone.
Austin, ever the rationalist, embraced this idea, knowing how happy he’d seen me around my family’s trees and citing the stories I’d shared. For him, the symbolic attachment to a tree was a smiling wife and that was reason to embrace this tradition. So, we (well, Austin) carted home a Christmas tree on the subway, a Torontonian site to behold. We trimmed the tree. We decorated the tree, with a nod or two to home. Ours was a beautiful tree.
Last weekend, we chose our 2014 tree, this time walking to the nursery up the street to choose our specimen (no subway required). Austin didn’t flinch as I inspected each tree, finally choosing the tallest and broadest as ours. He tied it up and hoisted it over his shoulder. Back at home, he anchored the tree in its stand and painstakingly vacuumed a million fallen needles as I strung the lights.
This year would be different. For the first time in my twenty-eight years, I’d be enjoying a tree on Christmas day, but in Toronto, not Windsor. As I write through this dark December morning, my mom has been admitted for her surgery — a massive surgery — they will cut her open and mend her broken pieces and hopefully, in time, bring her a modicum of health she hasn’t had in a long while.
Last night, I arrived home to 12 sparking new ornaments for our tree and two smiling parents who wanted to help us fill its naked branches (admittedly, they were sparse, especially by Pontikis standards). As we lifted the bulbs one by one, mom chose the best place for each and nestled it within the branches — her skill honed from years of experience. We sat back and admired our handiwork, this tree a bright light in a difficult time, a comforting anchor of familiarity and home and tradition as we prepared for a series of unknowns. The tree made so much sense.
This morning, 5 AM, bleary-eyed and half-awake, I made my way to the living room and was met with that sweet, evocative evergreen smell. By reflex, I plugged in the lights and sighed at our beautiful tree lighting the room. In caring and tending to a giant spruce in the midst of uncertainty, it welcomed the holiday and signaled the season. The familiarity of tradition has made my heavy heart lighter in myriad ways.