December 21, 2011

O Christmas Tree

The first Christmas tree that lives on vividly in my memory is the one I almost set on
fire, and had my angel not intervened, probably the house along with it. My brother had
received his first .22 rifle that year, so I deduce that he was thirteen years old, and I
was seven. We had opened our presents on Christmas eve. I have no idea how many
seven year olds can sleep all night on Christmas eve. I wasn’t one of them. Up before
dawn while the rest of the family were still snug in their beds, I snuck downstairs,
plugged in the lights, and the magic was instantly, grandly, reignited. And immediately
one of the lights shorted and blew out, sparked, and to my shock and terror flames
began licking up the side of the volatile conifer. My hand was still on the plug. I yanked
it out, ran like a deer to the kitchen and filled a glass with tap water. I threw it on the
tree and was amazed again, and of course relieved, that the fire was subdued. There
didn’t appear to be any residual damage. I went back to bed and hid under the covers.
When the tree was relit in the morning, this time by adult hands, only the errant bulb,
which kept my secret darkly, remained unlit. Only my brother suspected something was
amiss. He picked up his rifle, carefully brushed the water droplets off the wooden stock,
and quickly looked up with deadly suspicion. He caught my eye. We exchanged a
complicated glance. I quickly delved back into my new magic set.

Such is the nature of redemption that we’re sometimes rewarded with custody over the
objects of our trespasses. By the time I was twelve, I was in charge of Christmas. My
family had deferred to my flair for producing the Christmas Event at our house. The
decorations, the tree, the schedule of events: all mine. In the final year, at age 17, of
this curatorial run, I had gone conceptual: our Christmas tree, culled from the pine
forest at our country cabin in Michigan, had no decorations. It was flocked with
artificial snow and illuminated by tiny lights well hidden in its branches. It was the
farewell Christmas statement of my impresario phase. During the day it looked like a tree
standing in a wood after a snowfall. At night it was infused with stars. This delighted my
Dad, who always appreciated my genius (“Joey’s different,” he once mused), and who
had his own flair for iconoclasm. But it drew some skepticism from my Mom and
brother, who relinquished tradition with reluctance. But my brother, by then, had a
house, and a tree, and a family of his own. The mixed review it received from my mother
probably had more than a little to do with the encroaching loss it symbolized of many
things, including her family, into the world from which they came, or were becoming
absorbed. By next autumn her youngest, too, would have flown the nest. There’s a
Native American saying suggesting that a boy must put a mountain range between
himself and his mother before he can become a man. That mountain range, for me,
was the skyline of New York.

Christmas in Manhattan is a cornucopia of holiday magic of singular extravagance and
style. From the towering mother of all Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center, to its
myriad progeny all over the city, every imaginable tannenbaum springs forth to
celebrate the birth of the child upon whose sleeping face that night only the shepherds
and nobodies were permitted to gaze. The most unusual Christmas tree I’d ever
encountered was that of a designer friend of a friend which consisted of a large pine
branch suspended from the corner of the living room ceiling in his posh east seventies
apartment. It appeared to be a live branch, intruding into the apartment from outside,
was hung with upscale crystal baubles, and resonated with the austerity of my tree-in-
the-woods opus on the other side of the mountain range. I had been on the right track
after all. While keeping Christmas ever in my heart, the transience of the half-dozen
addresses under which I dwelt in my Manhattan years, and the generally modest
dimensions of the apartments, or the ownership of larger spaces, they located,
discouraged investment in significant furnishings of any kind. A wreath, a poinsettia or
two, or some ornamental contribution to the communal tree, sufficed. My rambling old
apartment on Staten Island, with its 5135 Kensington Avenue feeling, saw a return of
the Christmas impresario of my youth. Garlands, ribbons, sprigs, a grand old tree
decked out in all the timeless old magic... the place dripped with Christmas. And voices
lubricated with holiday cheer gathered each year around the baby grand while Oscar,
my loquacious zebra finch, cheek spots aglow, joined in to beat the band.

My favorite Christmas tree in literature, loosely defined, may be this very funny riff,
one of several on the subject, from Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes...

That’s my dad all over, who enjoyed throwing my brother and me into consternation by
suddenly demanding, in the middle of August, and with the most wistful of longing, 
“Give me my Christmas present now...”

One day in January, well into Epiphany, I was on my way to a Staten Island deli to pick
up a few items for the larder, orange juice, half and half, a bag of bagels. Several
discarded trees, forlorn with remnants, bedraggled tinsel, waited on the curb for
pick-up in this quaintest of New York City burroughs. A couple of teens, whose sure-
footed strides on the icy sidewalk overtook me, walked up to one of the trees and with a
flick of a lighter, set the volatile conifer on fire. I was amazed at how quickly the
desiccated tree went up in flames, was reduced to a charred skeleton. It virtually
exploded. They laughed and ran. Farther up the street, they ignited another. Then
another. It was quite a show. The rest of my walk to the deli was scented with the
perfume of smoldering pine, rather like incense really. Suddenly it seemed a good time
to take down my own Christmas stuff, and box it away for another year. When I got
home that’s what I did.