For eight years, our family tradition was to haul out our 9-foot artificial Christmas tree and decorate it with more than a thousand lights and color-coordinated ornaments. Fully adorned, our tree looked like it belonged on the cover of a magazine detailing the lives of the rich and glittery.
Often featured on our holiday card, our tree was displayed in our front window, so passers by could behold its majesty.
To achieve this glamorous look, I, my husband and our two teenagers had to toil all day. Last year, the kids complained the whole time. Even worse was when it came time to take the tree down. No one wanted to help me, and an argument ensued.
This year, our lives are different. We still live in our giant suburban New Jersey house, but we no longer live our faux luxury lifestyle, financed by home equity and credit cards. Our artificial tree is part of that life, which seems like the distant past.
Today, we live in our home only because it’s unlikely we could find a buyer. Reality forced us to scale back, and we are better for it, not that we have much time to contemplate the reasons why. My husband, Tony, and I work our tails off to keep up payments on the house and pay our expenses. Tony is a busy photographer. He used to have employees, but he let them go and now gets help from me and the kids, especially our 17-year-old son, Anthony. I sell mattresses and have a home-based business. Katie, 15, sometimes works at her uncle’s pretzel stand at the mall.
When we do have a few minutes to relax at home, hoisting the fake Christmas tree does not sound fun. It’s not just because we’re exhausted. For us, like so many others, over-the-top living has lost its appeal. Fake is out, and real is in.
So, this year, I suggested we not even venture up to the attic, where the fake tree resides, along with boxes upon boxes of ornaments. Instead, I proposed a small, real tree. The idea went over well, and soon we had a cute 5-footer adorned with lights that cost $7.50. I pulled out some construction paper, glitter and glue and set about making ornaments. I lured the kids over to make a few. We made an old-fashioned paper chain and strung tinsel, which can make even the scrawniest of trees festive.
Instead of putting our tree in the seldom-used living room so neighbors could see it from the street, we put it in the kitchen so we could enjoy it. Each morning, whoever gets up first plugs it in. We admire our tree and are amazed at how much peace it brings us. Its simple beauty makes us feel good in a way our artificial tree never did.
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, my parents loathed the idea of a fake tree. We took pride in having a large, fragrant tree, decorated with big, colored lights, not the small white lights that are fashionable nowadays. Most of our ornaments were handmade at school or church, carefully wrapped at the end of the holiday season so they would last forever. My older sister, Susan, still has those ornaments, including an enigmatic one made of an unknown substance – maybe paper mâché? – featuring an elephant’s butt, with a ribbon tied around its tail.
Many were made with construction paper, glue and glitter. Back then we strung popcorn and made paper chains. We didn’t complain about putting up the tree, though I don’t remember us ever helping my mother take it down.
Our tree, like our lifestyle, was authentic.
Here in New Jersey, our real tree is so much smaller than what we’re used to, we call it our little Charlie Brown tree. We don’t mean that as an insult. We plan to make this our new holiday tradition: small, simple, real. Katie and I are already thinking ahead to next year. Maybe we will add to our decorations from this year some natural ornaments made from pine cones, berries and twigs. When we take the tree down, a thought that no longer fills me with dread, some of the ornaments can become bird feeders.
It’s hard to believe I ever associated a gigantic, artificial tree with the Christmas spirit. Today, Christmas for me is making the most with what we are fortunate enough to have and stealing as many quiet moments as we can to take it all in.