The Tacky Tree
by Gail Stanton
I was in third grade the year Christmas changed in our house. It wasn’t the first major change in my young life, but it was a memorable one nonetheless.
Although some may have considered the Christmases of my earlier years bleak, with their lack of popular toys and holiday splendor, they remained happy ones in my memory. For me it was more about what we did have, not what we didn’t.
We always had a fresh tree, decorated with chunky colored lights and a combination of peeling store bought aluminum ornaments tucked in-between the homemade ones. My favorite was one I made in Sunday school- a hunk of straw tied in the center with a red pipe cleaner to represent the manger where the baby Jesus lay. Nestled against a brightly lit bulb, the ornament was special to me, my own contribution to our family tree.
Our grandparents lived next door and they would give us each a pile of gifts, presents that grandma (on her tight budget) had gleaned from yard sales throughout the year. Cleaned up and wrapped in bright paper, we never knew they were second hand.
Each package contained something different and unexpected. Grandma made sure the game and puzzle pieces were all there, and the clothes were clean and in good repair. I felt so special when I opened my pile of gifts on Christmas morning and I loved how our extended family would gather for the holiday meal in the afternoon. Adults jammed in around the dining room table, grandkids at the extra card tables.
But that year it all changed. I came home from school one day and found a fake tree covered with fake snow set up in the front window of our house. With a smile on her face, mom was dancing around the living room as she decorated it with green and blue lights- only green and blue.
The ornaments waiting in their pristine cellophane topped boxes looked strange to me. Upon closer inspection I realized they were identical in shape, color and size, half of them white on gold, the others gold on white.
Mom was so excited about our new tree, explaining to me how the ornaments were hand blown and imported from Germany, nicer than anything we had ever had. She and my stepfather bought them on a trip to Frankenmuth, a town in our state that was famous for its holiday stores.
When I asked why we now had a fake tree, mom told me it was not fake it was ‘artificial’. She then reminded me of the year we had gone tree hunting and I had peeked into a shed on the lot and saw trees being sprayed green. “Those trees were fake,” she said.
Walking over and touching a crusty white powdered branch, I turned back and said, “Well, this snow is fake.”
I spent that afternoon lying on the couch, refusing to decorate the tree. When mom asked what was wrong, I told her I felt sick, and I did. With a hand to my forehead she decided I did feel a little warm and told me to rest.
What she didn’t understand was that I wasn’t stomach sick, I was heart sick. The tree belonged in the back corner like it had always been. That way I could see the lights through the window as I came up the back steps from school.
Where were our chunky lights and our ornaments with the metal tops that would always come off? You had to squeeze the prongs together to fit the tops back on, and be careful not to shatter the ornament and cut yourself.
Weren’t we going to have tinsel? What, no angel hair?
Worst of all it was fake.
Lying there, I wondered why it all had to change. Not just the tree, but everything since she remarried a few years earlier. The whole household had gone through changes; even the meals mom made had changed. Supposedly the changes were for the better, but I didn’t agree.
And now our tree had changed. I recalled overhearing my stepfather comment on the ornaments the previous year, remarking that they were falling apart and tacky, they needed replacing he said.
Was a fake tree better than our real one, I wondered? I didn’t think so. Who cared if we weren’t going to have to buy a tree every year? At least they were pretty and smelled good. This one was as fake as the sprayed ones in the shed and worse yet, smelled like plastic.
Yet the change appeared permanent. That tree took root in the front window for the rest of my young childhood.
The year I was 14, the unexpected happened- a true Christmas Miracle in my opinion. That year I came home to find that mom had put a real tree in the family room at the back of the house. Although the fake one still held court in the living room, the presents were going under this one she said.
Out came the old decorations, brought up from the basement. And with them came the memories of my young childhood. We spent the afternoon decorating that tree, complete with the tinsel my stepfather swore would break the motor of the vacuum cleaner if it got caught.
Standing back I viewed the finished tree, complete with multi-colored lights and now antique ornaments. Some may have thought that tree tacky, but I thought it was beautiful.
And there, nestled against a brightly lit bulb, was a remnant of straw, still tied with a faded red pipe cleaner.
That one ornament reminded me in more ways than one, what was really important in life. And it wasn’t to be found in the elaborate commercialism of the season. I figured mom must have known it as well, since she’d kept all the old decorations.
There is truth to the saying, that all that glitters is not gold.
Gail Stanton, owner of The Scribe- Family Record Keeping Service, lives in Leominster, Massachusetts. Originally from Michigan, Ms. Stanton first started working in the field of journalism 17 years ago and currently writes for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette as well as the Central Massachusetts Event Planning Guide. Although she has a love for reporting the news, her real heart lies in the telling of family stories. A firm believer in the growing possibility that this generation could be the last of the hard copy readers, Ms. Stanton created her company to help others record their stories for generations to come.