The Tree

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sean dietrichBy Sean Dietrich

My wife is putting up the Christmas tree and we haven’t even rounded the corner toward Thanksgiving yet. But then, this holiday season can’t arrive quickly enough for us.

My wife is ready to get this show on the road. After a long year of sheltering in place, social distancing, sterilizing hands, and making curbside grocery pickups in hazmat suits, I’m surprised she didn’t put the tree up in July.

Not only is she erecting our tiny plastic tree, she is cooking butterscotch cookies, lighting scented candles, and diffusing festive 50-dollar essential oils into the air. Our house smells like a Yankee Candle suffering from an identity crisis.

Our corny Christmas decorations are making an annual appearance, too. We have porcelain figurines strewn on every surface, little glass people skating on mirrors, decorative salt shakers, a Norman Rockwell advent calendar, and of course, Christmas scarves for our dogs.

Yes. Scarves.

And music. You cannot put up a tree without music, it would be wrong. We play only the classics in this house. Because whenever Christmastime rolls around I prefer to travel back to a time when singers wore tuxedos, drank martinis on national television, and slurred their words in the company Foster Brooks.

The old melodies are drifting through our home like ghosts of Christmas Past. Nat sings about Chestnuts. Der Bingle is singing in Deutsch. The Vienna Boys’ Choir sings in Latin. Willie sings in Texan.

And I am lost in a fog of peppermint and plasticized Christmas paraphernalia. I have already traveled backward in time, deep into my childhood.

When I was a kid, my parents did not give many Christmas presents. Oh, we decorated and did trees, but our evergreens were fake, and our decorations were cheap.

On Christmas morning I would receive three or four sensible gifts and that was about all. Because we were fundamentalists. My mother didn’t believe in elaborate gifts. So I never even knew what I was missing out on.

I thought every kid received khakis, Fruit of the Looms, a Sandi Patty record, and a 1611 King James Bible for Christmas.

Until one year when I visited my friend’s house on Christmas Eve night.

The party was un-dang-believable.

I felt like I was walking into a Yuletide explosion. They were smoking cigarettes, sipping spiked eggnog, and shouting. They all gathered around a tree that was the size of a municipal landfill. Under the branches were 1,498,283 wrapped presents. Everyone was howling along to the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” refilling highballs, and wearing colorful garb.

My friend’s mother was dressed in a red gown with white pearls and a holly brooch. His father wore a Santa hat and smoked a stogie the size of a two-by-four. There was mistletoe hanging from the door jambs. I believe Foster Brooks even made a cameo.

The green-eyed monster of envy was awakened within Little Me, and I am at my worst when I’m jealous. It’s my ugliest emotion. I couldn’t believe I’d been so shorted for all these years.

Our Christmases had been dreadfully plain, and our suppers basic. We were pitiful. We ate canned oysters and cold cheese logs. We listened to solemn religious music. Our idea of a wild holiday night was turning up volume when Lawrence and the boys played “Lady of Spain.” How could my parents do this to me?

The next Christmas, my father decided to help me see life more clearly. He let me accompany him on one of the annual holiday errands he always did for our church.
We spent the evening going across town to deliver free balsam firs and sacks of gifts to needy families. These were sturdy trees, and the presents were mostly coats and shoes and hats.

That night we visited many different neighborhoods. I was introduced to various children who lived in ramshackled homes with dogs under the porches and absent parents. My father wasn’t trying to give me a guilt trip, I think he was just trying to let me see the world as it was.

And I did. I met kids my age who didn’t even seem to realize it was Christmas. They had no twinkling lights, no yard art, no butterscotch, no cheese logs, no nothing.

There was one kid who I went to school with. He was waiting on his porch with his little brother when we arrived. His family not only lacked a tree, they were using flashlights because their electricity was off. The church delivered their groceries weekly. And their clothes came from donations.

My father put on his biggest smile to make the delivery. We dropped off a garbage bag filled with gifts, and I was surprised to discover that these kids were actually excited about receiving so little.

When the kids threw their arms around my father I saw peach-sized tears in their eyes. One boy shouted, “Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!”

And I’ll never forget seeing that kid look admiringly at my father, then to me, and saying with complete sincerity: “Man, you’re SO lucky.”

We rode home in silence. And when I arrived at our little house and saw our crooked tree, I felt differently about it all. I looked at our handmade decorations, and the popcorn garland, and the quilted advent calendar, and the candied pecans, and I felt downright silly.

Then I sat beside the glow of our lit-up tree and got lost in the sounds of music. I could not quit thinking about what I had seen.

And even though I am an adult now, and even though COVID-19 has made this year a crummy year, I still replay that boy’s words in my head.

Because they remain so very true.