“Christmas has become too commercial” is a phrase quite popular around this time of year. It is something I understand and agree with, but as a child, it had no bearing in my mind. For children, it’s all about the presents … and there had better be a lot of them. My family did not have a lot of money, but somehow my parents always managed to provide us with a good Christmas (or as I liked to say “a good haul” of toys). This story, however, is not about gifts. It is a memory, a recollection so strong and vivid that it epitomizes Christmas for me. At the time, however, it caused me great shame, the kind of horror only a tween can imagine.
I don’t think the word “tween” existed back then, but in my bubblegum-popping mind, anyone over the age of twenty was clearly a dork, especially if they were a relative. This heinous experience occurred when I was about twelve years old, and, as with any angst-ridden teen, the embarrassment caused by the behavior of any elder seemed far too prevalent. My parents sent me into many fits and bouts of “hide in shame” moments. Don’t walk beside me, and act like you’re not with me, most likely came out of my mouth on many occasions. As an adult now, I can reason that those hideous moments were mostly unintentional. After all, when Mom asked (loudly!) in the grocery store (while pointing!), “Isn’t that such-and-such from school that you think is cute? Go talk to him,” or when Dad stood in the kitchen singing silly, homemade songs while I was in the midst of a slumber party, they couldn’t possibly have known that I was experiencing such horror … or, wait a minute, now that I think about it … HEY!
But, I’m getting off tract here. This story isn’t about them either. Neither of them caused me the grief that my grandmother did one wintery morn’ many moons ago. This, I’m positive, was unintentional. As a matter of fact, looking back on it, she did it with the aim of making me (and all her grandkids) happy. Tweens are unable to see these things, however. Tweens are like dogs. They only see black-and-white.
Back then, there was one thing I always saw in a shade of grey. Frugality – and it was one of the grand moral rules my grandmother lived by. When you are a tween, that language does not jive. It is no comprendo. There are far too many cool things to buy … items that must be bought or suffer great indignity in the eyes of your peers! My grandmother never saw it that way though. She purchased what was necessary, nothing more, nothing less. To her, life was not about material possessions (we had few anyway). She cared naught about new clothes, fancy televisions, or over-priced baubles. She didn’t even care about Christmas trees. Don’t get the wrong impression of her, though. She was no Scrooge or Grinch. She was more like one of those Whos down in Whoville who understood the true meaning of Christmas. Naturally, I thought she was insane. Life was most definitely about stuff. More stuff! Cool things! Let’s get this and that, and why can’t I have this? In my young mind, one might as well live in a cave, if one could not have the “right” clothes or the newest gadgets! But, my grandmother would not budge on this principle. The important things, she claimed, revolved around the ones you loved and the experiences you shared.
What a pant load, I thought then, a total, weighed-down, pile o’ poo-poo. She should, at least, have a Christmas tree. What was superficial about that? The whole “get a tree” rant was something the grandchildren bugged her about all the time. In her view, she had no need for it, since she visited all her children and grandchildren at their own homes on Christmas day. Why spend money on a tree for her living room? Well, one day, something snapped like a twig, and maybe it was miraculous, divine intervention, or maybe she got sick of listening to the same old argument, but I convinced her to put up a tree. I felt superior to all the other grandchildren, to all grandkids who had ever existed in the history of the world. I had succeeded in the perceived impossible. I was totally cool.
Then she told me where we were going to get said tree.
It was in the backyard. Now, let me explain this a little better. See, I grew up in the country. If you grow up Southern in the country, the phrase “woods behind the house” is something folks understand quite clearly. I knew all about those woods – the creeks, and rabbit holes, and crawdaddy mud piles. There weren’t any Christmas trees. Santa ain’t back there with his elves making wooden toys, Grandma, I can assure you of that. Christmas trees come from the grocery store, all bundled in twine, resting comfortably next to other normal trees, until someone straps it atop the car for the long ride home where it shall be decked in shiny garb.
What kind of tree would it be anyway? My tween senses were enraged! An oak? Maple? Heaven forbid, a Charlie Brown tree? She said, “Now Michelle,” which is usually what she said whenever I made some foolish remark, and I supposed she knew nothing about Charlie Brown and his sad, little tree. She did not understand the whole concept of the holiday tree.
Let me tell ya, there was no way I was trudging into the woods to chop down a tree. No ma’am! Not gonna do it! How could she chop down a tree anyway? My grandmother did not weigh more than one hundred pounds! I should have known better, however, because two of her other virtues were stubbornness and fearlessness. She once fought off a pit bull attack by hitting the dog over the head with her walking stick (she wasn’t cripple, she just liked that stick for some reason). A tree was certainly no match. Determined, she put on her heavy coat and thick winter boots that looked like galoshes and slung an axe over her back. An axe! This is my grandmother, I thought. What horror. Shouldn’t she bake some cookies or a pie? Why doesn’t she knit sweaters or something? Geez.
For kicks, I decided to trail behind her, arms folded with a pout, thinking, “We are hunting Christmas trees, rascally rabbit.” It was such a cartoon-ish sight. Not far into the woods, we found our mark, a scruffy, little pine, taller than a Charlie Brown tree, but not as full as one you would see all pretty at the Christmas tree farm on the outskirts of town. It was small enough for us to drag back to the house, and she gave it a few good whacks, toppling it over without a “Timber!”
I can’t say any one part of this whole experience amused me. I was seriously mad, in the way that any tween gets infuriated and spends much time complaining on the phone to various friends about the horrible shame of it all. Oh, gaaawwwd, you should see this tree! It’s sooooo embarrassing, I most likely ranted.
Of course, I wanted no one to see this tree … ever. But, at least she had a tree, and my father arrived to put it on a stand and make sure it wouldn’t fall over. He didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking. Good gravy, that’s an ugly tree! Where’d she get it? The backyard? All the grandkids were called to decorate it, and when each looked upon it, the reaction was the same – arms akimbo and head shakes all around. To be honest, I don’t recall her even buying ornaments. We may have used old ones from my parents and aunts and uncles. I do have a vague memory of making a string out of popcorn and other odd bits and ends. It was a terrible sight. Trees were suppose to have Hallmark decorations copyright Disney Corp, and silver garland bought at WalMart on Black Friday, and fragile glass balls that reflect the faces of happy children who look down at all the presents under the tree. This tree didn’t even have lights! No lights! Again, the horror!
Outside of close family, no one ever saw that tree. I don’t even have a photo of it. I just remember how mortified I was by the whole experience. As an adult, I look back on that memory fondly. Surprise, surprise! Why would I write this here article, otherwise? I realize now, my thoughts less shallow, less cool too, that my grandmother put that tree up because I had asked her to – she did it to make me happy, to make all the grandchildren happy. For her, Christmas was never about proudly displaying a gaudy tree for the amusement of others. She felt no desire for fancy bows, or red, green, and blue lights, or department store wrappings. None of that mattered. Nope. Not at all. To my grandmother, it was all about watching us kids decorate that tree. I don’t remember her hanging even one ornament herself. I just remember her, as I always do, sitting in her favorite chair by the window, drinking a glass of iced tea.
If I could go back in time and say, “Hey, kid! This is a moment here. A great, grand, glorious moment unlike any you’ll experience again! Your grandmother is chopping down a tree! What other kid can say that? Trust me, this is gonna reside in the recesses of your mind like pine needles deeply embedded in shag carpet!” (I imagine myself going back in time and talking all literary.) My tween self would have a) said no way and b) asked why I no longer felt that feathered-back hair was cool.
There is no way I would have grasped the moral of this story. The very idea that there was a moral would have been lost on me then. I never would have been able to utter the words – my grandmother is right. Oh, gawd, no! But, surprise again, it turned out she was indeed correct. Right, righty, right-o. Whenever I think back on any Christmas, I don’t think about the gifts. Sure, I know I got a Barbie ‘vette as a kid, Guess jeans as a teenager, and several top 40 CDs in my twenties, but none of those things make me smile now. I do, however, get a chuckle when I think about my parents dancing to, as they called it, “old-time rock-n-roll” one Christmas Eve. I clearly recall my brother and his friends playing guitar at our holiday party another year. I’ll never forget sitting in front of the televison, wrapped in a blanket, drinking hot chocolate, and watching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer with my sister and brother every year. But, of all those memories, the tippy-toe topper of them all will always be the day my grandmother chopped down her own Christmas tree.
All those little memories are what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown. Heck, it’s what life is about. Come Christmas morning, when your kiddies are opening that iPad or Wii, remember this fine, ol’ moral, and do something with your children that might seem ridiculous, something unique, something that will most likely humiliate and torture them throughout their teen years, but if it is done with genuine love, trust me, that’ll be the moment that sticks.
Shame, I’m, like, sooooo over it.