Dad decorated a Christmas tree the way he did everything else, with pride. No, it was not the best or the most adorned, and it would not win any prizes, it was not what you would call a classic. But it was one of a kind… his.
He did it alone, from the purchase to the last strand of tinsel. He tied it to the roof, drove it home, screwed it into the stand, straightened it, and planted it by the largest window. Dad strung the lights in a spiral, hung the ornaments, the balls… silver, blue, red and green; draped the tinsel, skirted the stand, stuck the star on the top, and stood back. Perfect. “When I was a kid, we put real candles on our tree. We sat and watched them so the house wouldn’t burn down.”
The first memory I have is seeing the blur of lights, a glow seemed to fill the corners of my eyes with mist, and I was transported to a natural place. His tree was as green as a summer day and smelled as fresh as evergreens on the side of a mountain. Against the window, it radiated streams of low winter light that bounced off the balls, the tinsel and the ornaments, then filtered through the branches with laser like, speckled beams to the rug. The light’s glow and the tree’s aroma diffused throughout our house. It meant Christmas.
Each ornament was hung in the same place every year. Angels came alive, Santas brought gifts, balls reflected light and bells rang with joy. In the middle of the tree was a picture of me taken in front of the tree on my first birthday. And there was Dad’s favorite, a cloth Santa. “I bought that Santa when you were born. It’s as old as you.”
Santa was two-thirds the way up the tree. Made of cloth, stitched and glued, he was no more than four inches high, wore a tall red hat with a white cotton rim, a long red jacket that hung to his knees, light blue pants, a brown sack over his left shoulder and black boots. His droopy, pink face and blue eyes sung with joy.
Bursting with excitement on Christmas morning, the first thing I saw was the tree, and then the bounty; over the years appeared trains, a Red Flyer wagon, a football, shoulder pads, sneakers, a baseball glove, an erector set, a radio, a fire truck, ice skates, a hockey stick, and the bike, the Rocket Royal. The Santa watched from above.
Year after year Dad hung his Santa. The years went by, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty. Santa never failed. He took his place two-thirds the way up.
I married and had children. Each Christmas Day, Dad anticipated our arrival, and then he strolled to his tree. “That Santa is as old as your father.”
Over the years Santa aged too; his beard went from white to tan, he lost his left hand, his pants drooped, pine needles stuck to his boots, his sack shriveled, the piping on the front of his jacket needed stitching, the cotton withered.
My Dad died in 1996. We bought a small tree for Mom and decorated it, never-failing to place the Santa. Mom died six years later. Disposing of their collection was difficult. As we discarded the old decorations, I panicked. Where was Santa? At the last moment, I found him, surrounded by hunks of tinsel, attached to Mom’s last tree, in a junk heap in the corner of the yard. I captured him. Was he smiling? That year he took his place on my tree. “See that Santa. Pop bought it when I was born.”
One year, I lost the Santa. I panicked, again, searched everywhere and still I could not find him. He did not grace the tree that year. “I know he’s here in this house.” Christmas passed. Santa missed it for the first time.
The following year, while unpacking ornaments, I found him, lying in the bottom of the box, packaged in a Ziplock bag, smiling up at me. I took a deep breath as memories surfaced, melting into tears in the corners of my eyes. “I found him, I found him.”
Santa took his place in the tree, two-thirds of the way up from the bottom. I anticipate our grandchildren’s arrival each Christmas and stroll to the tree. “See that Santa. He’s as old as I am. Pop bought him when I was born.”
Dad’s tree will ever remain one of a kind…ours.