When the star touches the ceiling. Then it's big enough.
There is never a time when I want more to live in a house with a vaulted ceiling than during December, when we go shopping for a Christmas tree. Not because I really long to decorate and manage anything so massive, and not that I really want to rearrange my whole house to accommodate the girth for something so large. Mostly I want to live up to the challenge and the memories of my youth, when the star brushing against the ceiling was all my parents really wanted for Christmas.
You know how, when you look back at the way your parents acted when you were a child, you stop and chuckle and wonder deep down in your heart if you missed something because there’s no way they could have been that nutty on purpose? That’s how I feel during the annual event that is the Christmas tree. In my own life, I just can’t imagine trying to tackle anything near to what they did. (I think they must have sniffed a little too much eggnog.)
But these are my memories, my wonderful and crazy memories.
We used to borrow my Grandfather’s brown El Camino, whose nickname I cannot disclose to anyone outside my family. He loved that vehicle and it surprises me to this day that he’d let us drive it out into what we thought was the country on dark snowy nights. It always used to be dark and snowy when we got our Christmas tree. Global warming is really ruining this for our kids.
Off we’d go, my father driving, my mother white-knuckling the door handle as we slid down the road, and I, the only child, was smashed between them on the seat that was never ever comfortable. We’d put on a cassette tape of some country artist singing carols and change all the words and laugh our heads off until we pulled down the gravel drive and parked.
“Give me the biggest tree you’ve got,” my dad would say. And the salesman, who grew to know us over the years, would lead us into a special garage where the extra large trees were kept.
Some years, there were no trees big enough to satisfy my parents, but when there was, life was good. They’d strap it across the top of the El Camino and it would dangle dangerously in front of the windshield, impairing our vision and further increasing my mother’s grip on the door handle.
We always made it home safely, even with the laughing spells and the snowy nights.
Furniture was shifted, the bright lights were turned on, and they would strain their backs attempting to get it in the house and, by some bit of a miracle, standing straight enough for my father’s liking. At this point, when the tree was in and up, he would disappear, leaving my mother to tackle the rest.
With the sweet sounds of Willie Nelson singing “Pretty Paper” coming from the record player, she’d prop the extension ladder against the wall and start stringing lights, strand after strand after strand. I think it must have taken 4,000 ornaments to cover the tree, but all were hung with care using bits of string and make-shift hangers made from distorted paper clips. We hid the Christmas Spider and hung tinsel everywhere that the dog couldn’t reach. (A lesson was once learned about how much dogs love to eat tinsel.) The nativity scene was set up under the tree, and while I moved the Three Wise Men around to bring their gifts to the Baby Jesus, my mom would carefully place the star on the top so that it just barely touched the tip of the vaulted ceiling.
When it was finished, boxes were simply stashed away, the bright lights turned dim, and with the soft glow of the giant tree, Willie Nelson kept sang me to sleep.