The morning after Jonathan asked me to marry him, we bought our first Christmas tree. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and because we were planning to have a holiday party on the day after Thanksgiving, we needed a tree. We had planned to tackle this task Friday morning, heading to a tree lot early to beat the crowds. But it was Wednesday, the day after we got engaged, when, pulling out of the grocery store lot with our car stuffed full of food and alcohol, we spied a pop-up tree lot in the front yard of someone’s house. There were easily fifty trees leaning at odd angles against their temporary posts. It was sixty-five degrees out, and there were exactly zero customers in the yard. Why not have a look?
Something you should know about Jonathan is that he loves holidays, especially Christmas. While I can be sort of ho-hum, even Scrooge-y, about the fanfare, Jonathan’s enthusiasm for the stuff of Christmas—the food, the decor, the festivities and cheer—is unrivaled. And infectious. Early in our relationship, I discovered that even someone with a cold dead heart like me could be charmed by Christmas when in his orbit, and in his orbit is exactly where I’d been for the last fifteen months.
And, I love a party. A Christmas tree was exactly what we needed.
While Jonathan was drawn to the low price tags of the Scotch pines (those prickly, sap-covered plebe trees), I made a bee-line for the bougie Douglas firs, the only tree ever deemed suitable for my mother’s home. The per-foot price was double that of the Scotch pines. As a graduate student making nothing, I had no room to bargain with my now-fiancé, a high school orchestra teacher who, on my personal finance scale, was a jillionaire. As with every other purchase we made together, the subtext of our polite, mature, adult negotiation was always that he had to be convinced of whatever I wanted us to buy, in this case, an overpriced but totally worth it stunner of an evergreen. I stood excitedly beside a nine-footer, eagerly proclaiming its virtues over the lesser pines: “The branches aren’t so close together so there is plenty of room for ornaments; the needles are short and soft, so we will suffer no decorating wounds; there will be no leaky sap to stain the hardwood of our apartment.” It was charming, long-lasting, the exact tree I grew up with.
All for $12/foot.
I felt the familiar, inherited pull of my mother’s competitive streak, which, for her, manifests most acutely in the cultivation of Martha-Stewart-rivaling, all-or-nothing home-making and party planning skills from which she has built a thriving business. I thought about the ways her holiday trees transfixed our guests and visitors, stole their breath, wooed them into comfort and joy. I thought about how no matter what was happening at home, no matter how tired or frayed the holidays (our high season) made all of us, the twinkling tree proved that we were okay. No, better than okay—happy, stable, worry-free. I may not love the fanfare of Christmas, but I sure wasn’t going to half-ass it.
Despite the fact that this was the first non-cocktail-related excitement I’d summoned for the upcoming holiday season, Jonathan was not persuaded.
“There are other lots, other trees. What’s the rush?”
“But we’re here now, and I hate crowds, and look how perfect!”
“But it’s over $100, and we just spent all this money on groceries, and we need to buy Christmas gifts.”
The tree man stepped in. “I’ll give it to you for $9/foot,” he said.
$81! A steal!
As he does too often, Jonathan relented. I had my tree.
The lot owner didn’t have his netting machine set up, so he helped Jonathan secure the tree to the top of our car, its branches loose, and sent us on our way, a happy couple beginning to make a home together.
I did not have the forethought to consider that without netting, we could not just trot the tree up to our third floor walk-up; it couldn’t exactly be carried, its majestic branches threatening to scratch the corneas of anybody attempting such a feat. What’s more, it was simply too big for two people to manage—one of us (me) would have ended up pinned against a wall, yelling at the other one (him) to stop or help or do something different. Instead, Jonathan would have to drag our nine-foot fully opened tree all the way up the stairs by himself.
“I can handle it,” he said confidently, so I let him.
Listening to his litany of swearing for the fifteen or so minutes it took him to negotiate the tree around the bends in the narrow stairwell, I knew I’d need to return the gesture by ensuring that, once lit and decorated, our tree—our first tree together—would secure its place in Jonathan’s memory as the prettiest tree he’d ever seen. This tree and its trimmings and all of the ornamentation and sparkle that would draw us closer, and prove my domestic fitness, which is not a skill they teach you in graduate school. No problem, I thought, recalling in vivid technicolor my mother’s annual tree, which was, as far as I was concerned, the Platonic form of holiday trees. I could do this.
Inside, nestled in its stand, the scale of the tree in relation to our cavernous loft apartment became clear. Sizing it up and down, mentally calculating, I turned to Jonathan: “I’m going to need more lights.”
He disagreed. We had five or six working strands.
“That’s not enough,” I said. “More. All white. You are going to love this.”
He preferred multi-colored lights, which was news to me.
“Okay, three of each,” I said, proud of the ease with which I introduced a compromise—clearly the foundation of a strong and lasting marriage. “I’ll start with what we have while you run out.”
Away he went. Meanwhile, standing on an old desk chair, I again recalled my mother’s tree and, winding the first strand around the tippy top of my Douglas fir, began the work of lighting it.
Four weeks from this day Jonathan will spend his first Christmas with my family. On December 20, the tree having been standing bare for a week or more, my mother will call us all into the living room where boxes of ornaments will be stacked on the piano bench and ottoman. We kids—ranging in age from sixteen to thirty—will spread out across the sofa and wingback chairs emptying bottle after bottle of red wine while our mother painstakingly wraps nearly every branch of her Douglas fir with white lights.
She starts at the top, winding her way from center trunk out to the extremities of each branch, then back to the center and back out again, weaving miles of incandescent bulbs and electrical wire around and through until, twelve or fifteen strands later, all of them connected together, she will reach the base of the tree where, with much anticipation, she’ll flip the switch on the power strip and the comfortably dim room will glow, gleaming with the soft white light of this winter holiday.
By then we will be too drunk to care much about hanging ornaments which is just fine with Mom, as only she can execute her vision for the tree. To be good sports, we will hunt through the boxes to find our favorites, and, mimicking the same pose our mother assumes when assessing ornament placement—left foot forward, leaning back into the right hip, eyes narrowed in calculation—we will find suitable homes for childhood crafts and shimmery mirrors.
In the morning, squinting through our hangovers, we’ll see that she has rearranged the tree’s ornaments to achieve a satisfying balance of size, color, space. Most of the wonky crafts we made as kids will have been relocated to the “kid tree,” a small Charlie Brown fir that occupies the corner of the dining room, its branches offering a decades-long microhistory in the artistic potential of common household materials: popsicle sticks, clothespins, yarn, pipe cleaners, baked clay and dough, paper, felt, and other textiles cut or collaged into rough approximations of holiday shapes, and, of course, a lot of Elmer’s glue. In the right light, it is possible to be overcome with reverence, particularly if one takes a moment to observe the small Nativity scene assembled out of cardstock, popsicle sticks, and in-tact nutshells (Mary and Joseph are pecans and wear sharpie-drawn expressions of genuine worry; Jesus is a straight-faced peanut).
And the trees—each positioned in corner windows in the front of the house—they will be the talk of the neighborhood.
This is how a house becomes a home.
After thirty or so minutes Jonathan returns with two bags full of Christmas lights. They were on sale at the hardware store, so he bought ten strands. Though I’m through four strands of lights already, I’ve barely made any visual progress; in fact, I’m still standing on the chair, not yet to a point on the tree where my arms can reach comfortably. Weaving in and out of the branches, my frustration grows as the cords become tangled and whole sections of lights spontaneously go dark. Jonathan can plainly observe my annoyance and pours me a bourbon, complimenting me on how nice the tree looks so far.
“It looks dumb,” I snap. “It doesn’t look as nice as my mom’s.”
He shrugs, but he hasn’t seen her tree yet, so he doesn’t know what I’m measuring against, doesn’t know to be disappointed. He asks if I want help.
“This is a one person job,” I tell him, which is only true if you want it to be.
“Okay,” he says cheerfully. He loads Elf into the Blu-ray. We say the lines back and forth to each other absentmindedly, an intimate little ritual that should keep me in good spirits but only adds to my simmering impatience.
“Are you sure you don’t want help?” he asks.
“I’ve got it,” I tell him.
I can picture her movements—it looks so easy, elegant even. In and out and around, my hands weave strand after strand of tiny light bulbs until my shoulders are aching and I can feel my heart pounding in my throat, a sign that I am near tears. I am irrationally mad: mad at myself for thinking I could do this, mad at him for loving Christmas so much, mad at myself again for what a dumb thing that is to think. On my back under the tree covered in needles and dog hair, I call to him to flip off the overhead lights.
These better all fucking work, I mutter to myself, plugging them into the wall.
Jonathan’s eyes widen, and I can see hundreds of tiny points of light reflected in his pupils. His red hair glows like the embers of a low fire, and his smile fills his face.
I wiggle out from under the tree and stand beside him across the room. It still looks dumb and uneven. The top is crowded and there are too many dark spots at the bottom where I got lazy. But he loves it. And if I squint a little, I love it, too.
Three years later, a year and six months after we were married, Jonathan is again dragging a tree through the front door. This time, though, there are no stairs to worry about apart from the four steps leading from the sidewalk to the front porch of our rental house. We live in Iowa now, where I got a new job three months ago. It is Jonathan’s first time living outside of his home state. Yesterday, we had a disagreement about the tree. We will spend the holiday break back in Ohio with his family, and because we are in a too-small rental house already, I didn’t want to bother with a tree.
“We won’t be here to enjoy it,” I said. “It’s a hassle. It’s messy. We don’t have any money. Let’s just skip it.”
We hardly ever argue, apart from what is a normal bedtime and which way the toilet paper goes, so even though I knew Jonathan wouldn’t agree with me at first, I figured he’d come around. Instead, he dug in.
“The tree matters to me,” he said. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, I don’t have any friends, I’m away from my family…” He trailed off.
I rehearsed rebuttals in my head but couldn’t find one safe enough to say out loud.
“I like having a tree,” he said calmly. “I want a tree.”
The only tree lot we can find that isn’t in the parking lot of a box store is out in the middle of a mowed corn field. They are running a deal on Scotch pines, and have a limited number of Fraser firs, Douglas’s nearly identical cousin. Again, we spend a fortune. Again we drive across town with an un-netted tree. Again, Jonathan hauls it in and we swallow our snipes while trying to get it straight in the stand.
Jonathan brings all the lights up from the basement and I plug them in, one by one, inspecting them for dark spots. He pops Elf in the Blu-ray, pours us each a glass of bourbon, and I set to work at the top of the tree while he fusses about with one thing or another that I want him to leave alone.
As I work my hands in and out of the branches, getting tangled in electrical wire and feeling cramped by the way the size of the tree dwarfs our already tiny living room, I feel my blood pressure rising. Jonathan is outside with a strand of horrible red lights that threaten to give our neighbors the wrong idea. I think about my mother’s trees and how mine always fail to replicate them. I think about how I don’t even want to be doing this, how much I hate the way stringing lights makes me feel shitty and inadequate and tired and small. A strand of lights suddenly goes dead in the middle, and in an instant I am cussing again. Through the window, I watch Jonathan cheerfully indulging the pointless jabber of the neighbor who has wandered into the yard; half of the porch railing is striped like a candy cane, and his shoulders are loosely draped with strands of white and red. He is kind and patient and giving and I am a person who cusses at Christmas lights, but we are still married and making a life together anyway. This is not a competition, I think to myself, and my performance of rituals does not prove anything. Noticing me noticing him, he rolls his eyes at the neighbor’s chatter, and we share a smile. This is how a house becomes a home.
I call Jonathan into the house.
“Thanks, she would not stop talking,” he says, relieved.
“I need help,” I say, my voice trembling a little.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“I don’t want to do this. I can’t make it look like my mom’s. I don’t care about that. It makes me too mad.”
“Are you sure you don’t need to control this?” he asks again.
“Just do it, please,” I say, handing him the lights, begging him to relieve me of this burden. “I don’t need my mom’s tree.”
Working with exquisite and performative care, Jonathan walks slow circles around the tree, winding the lights in spirals, striving for even distribution of bulbs in the center of the tree and at the ends of its branches. When he gets to the bottom and we still have three or four strands on the table, he drapes them vertically, diagonally, every which way all over the tree in a horrible mess that would make my mother ill. I turn off the overhead light and he jams the plug into the outlet. Again, his red hair glows, and on his back under the tree, his eyes sparkle. I feel my cheeks and eyes lift, my heart slowing to a healthy pulse.
It’s fine. It’s good. It’s beautiful.