A Christmas Tree Story: What is Yours?

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Businesses don’t put up Christmas trees anymore.

And maybe that’s one of our problems.

Well, some do. Unfortunately, trees are so rare, I usually do a double take when I see one. Halt in my tracks just to gawk. Nostalgia neurons burn cobwebs, fire hot in my brain. I haven’t ruled out how nostalgia is a real thing for me. Christmas trees stir childhood curiosity and just a touch of joy. Since Christmas ornaments only witness daylight once a year, the memories they keep, the stories they tell remain fresh and raw for what feels like an eternity.

A Christmas tree is a universal beacon of warmth and hospitality. To me, anyway.

Home life in my youth was turbulent. There were consistent, life-shattering surprises. Security was not on the reality list. However, there were a few things in my life back then I could always depend and one was the variety of trees proudly showcased in business plate-glass and urban apartment windows that made up a tiny happy segment of my world.

I became an observer. A Christmas tree aficionado. vintage four

Trees tall and short, ragged and rich. All proud in display.

Ornaments that adorned real pine, plastic, and even aluminum where the tips stealth-sliced your fingers. Shiny baubles seemingly proud to reflect and bend colored twinkles . Lights that that stick around, never to be extinguished In my mind. The beauty refuses to burn away.

Stories behind these trees and their artifacts were all too real. You see, those trees, along with the stuff straining branches, represented a shiny bright in time, now passed (past).

Some memories joyous many sad.

A forever marriage that didn’t survive the trip, a grandparent long dead yet fondly represented, a son never to return from some shit war, an ended relationship marked by a forever ornament that testified to a love date-stamped on a Hallmark artifact.

You see, Christmas trees are a yuletide 23 & Me.

Wandering excited through the west side of Avenue U, a lower-middle class strip, hodge-podge of small business and family-run establishments in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, NY on the Friday after Thanksgiving, is a fond memory of childhood.

When I think about the 4 city- block walk to the avenue, my eyes would dart frantically from one house and apartment window to the next, searching for a featured tree. In my mind, every window framed a story. Testaments to love, tradition and household stability. I mean what could go wrong when you had a Christmas tree in the house? In my imagination, these sentinels guarded against bad things. String lights scared away the darkness; ornaments full of plastic and glass preserved love so strong, evil spirits wouldn’t dare to trespass.

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So, as I walked in focused lockstep, moved forward fast to Taverna’s Department Store, in anticipation of a cordoned Christmas fantasy land at the back of the store.

Along the way the trees. So. Many. Trees.

On the corner of West 2nd Street and the avenue, stood Sal Manna’s Shoes. During the year I hated that place. My mother would drag me in to purchase Easter shoes every year. The entire ritual of sitting in a row of seats, having my foot placed in a metal vice to determine size, trying on stiff patented leather shoes and Sal pressing down diligently on a big  toe to figure out the answer to the mystical question nobody ever could answer – “how long before he outgrows these Buster Brown torture devices?” was never a happy time.

However, Sal had one of the finest trees in the neighborhood; it was one of the few times I could walk into his establishment withhold a feeling of foreboding and fear for my sole.

“Mr. Manna, what a great tree.”

“Thank you!” Big smile.

I’d walk up to it and gently handle the ornaments. I expected to him to scream at me “DON’T TOUCH!” but he never did.

He walked to me and started to tell me the story behind the tree. I can’t remember it all but from what I recall it was the first tree he bought for his store years back as finally things were going well (thanks to all the Italian moms who believed Jesus wouldn’t resurrect unless their kids had new shoes).

He was proud of what the tree represented for him and his family – prosperity, security.

Random Thoughts:

Never forget the stories behind your tree. Those stories represent who you are; they stir a feeling you felt long ago. Old ornaments breathe new life into the good things from your past that are forgotten the rest of the year. Even if the stories are sad, they now go down like a fine bourbon – in 5 seconds you’re overwhelmed by warmth.

Your tree is alive all year. Even when stored away, even when you skip years of extracting it from a cardboard tomb, the memories never die. Nor should they. They are you. Who you were, who you are, who you always will be.

Maybe what’s wrong with society is we don’t erect enough trees. Not enough trees, not enough memories, All selfie, no story. No tree in the heart, no element of humanity.

Our trees are dying every day.

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So what’s your Christmas tree story? Can you remember it today? Can you keep it tucked away and put it up when you need to feel love, warmth and security?

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Businesses don’t put up Christmas trees anymore.

Perhaps there’s a good reason.

Or maybe we’ve all just lost yet another ritual that brought us together.

Can you feel the joy again?

In this moment like a last moment?

Can even the sad be cathartic?

Try it and see.

It’s fine to be surprised by feelings that are unpacked and adorned for all to witness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Folded Cardboard Holiday. Four Ways to Stay Alive at Christmas.

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I’m sort of numb at Christmas.

grumpy christmas

The holiday has clearly lost some of its sparkle.

Christmas reminds me how relationships, like antique glass ornaments, can so easily shatter. Shiny bright one day, swept up in a Dyson the next. As if the sparkle never existed. Unfixable.

The systemic problem with Christmas is it stirs ancient thoughts and ignites the mental bias called anchoring. I dare you to gaze at a tree ornament that you’ve unpacked every year over the last ten (or longer) and not recall “the moment.”

Such strong feelings. The weeks up to Christmas drain me like walking in heavy boots through 5 feet of wet snow. You recall ghosts of holiday celebrations past. Decades merge; 1982 is a freaking blip ago.

The weather the day you first hung the ornament from the artificial Christmas tree; you re-live that, too. The eye color, hair shade, smell, of the person who bought that holiday trinket to make you smile; now the damn thing has a life of its own, and holds a wealth of memories you would sooner forget. But you can’t. The person who bought it is either missing (by choice), dead, or probably has long forgotten the purchase (also by choice).

Admittedly, most of the year you don’t think about it. Until..

You resurrect decorations from the yellowed plastic tomb stored in the garage. From a container marked “CHRISTMAS CRAP.” Then you’re back in the moment and usually it isn’t good. Oh, you can throw the shit away, who would care? But you don’t. Sullen, you hang it again from a tree branch. Another year.

Stab me with a candy cane, it’s fine: I can take it.

This year after exhuming a memory, I lost track of the day. It was silly; I realized I had been sitting on the dusty floor of my garage for an hour and a half. Lost in space, missing time, stuck in “the moment.”

santa slay Awww

Even cardboard can pull the past into the present. At a friend’s house recently, a collector of vintage kitsch, a flood of past holidays washed over me. There in the corner, looking as new as the ancient day it was originally unfolded, was a Christmas adornment I haven’t seen in at least a decade.

Funny, when I saw it I immediately became mired in a tinsel-laden time warp. I went speeding through holiday backroads; exiting at 1972, the year I first admired my own cardboard and electric (what a lethal combo),

cardboard fireplaceFireplace!!!!!

It was a lousy Christmas. My mother after a week-long binge of booze and pills came home from God-knows-where, focused on the fake Christmas tree I just finished decorating. She picked it up from the middle pole and like some form of petite, brunette-elf weightlifter, flung it out our third-floor living room window. Graceful and horrifying at the same time.

I think there were like 6,000,000 lights secured around this thing. In fact, there were so many light sets attached that when the plastic-pine cliff diver advanced from the window, one of the light strings got caught on the way down causing the tree to swing back and forth about 10 feet from the ground like some type of sardonic holiday pendulum.

Two days after, a favorite cousin visited. A savior of sorts. He brought the fireplace along with small, wrapped gifts. On December 27, I had Christmas revisited thanks to Michael. We put together the fireplace, secured the lightbulb behind fake flames. It might as well had been the real thing. The warmth was real. A cousin made my holiday.

I never forgot.

Maybe good things come out of Christmas memories after all.

Random Thoughts:

1). Tell People you Love them. Now. Today. Even when they don’t feel the same. Even if they walk away. Even if they don’t respond.Today is the day to tell them exactly what they mean to you and you’ll be there for them because your heart and soul can’t change. It won’t change. Don’t compromise.

2). Christmas is not a day, or a holiday, it’s a mindset. The harsh glow of bad memories are fine even if they pierce like extra-pointy tips of holly. The rotten ones are tough yet you must look beyond them and work hard find the lessons that move you forward. Embrace what was and analyze how it made you the person you are today.

3). In times of despair, who will save your holiday? Be open to the signs. Be open to those you’ve been closed to before. You never know the lessons they’ll teach you, the memories they’ll create for you when you unpack aged ornaments next Christmas.

4). Now is the time to tie up loose ends. With people. With money. Step back. Foster ties with those who create energy, and cut away the ones who take it away. On occasion, you’ll be the one who’s cut and never truly understand why. There’s a humility, a frailty to being cut. It feels hopeless. Like a Christmas tree cast from upper floors. Then, out of nowhere – hope emerges. What a surprise.

At the end of the year, it’s a good idea to double-check the beneficiaries on retirement accounts and life insurance policies. It’s also an opportune time to decide how you’re going to increase your contributions to retirement plans or work to pay off credit card debt in the new year.

My middle name is Michael.

I demanded my mother have it changed after that Christmas in 1972. She obliged out of guilt. It was a way to always keep a special cousin in my heart.

After losing contact with Michael years ago, I found out that he died in 2008.

Alone. From AIDS.

In a motel room in upstate New York. He was dead a week before they found him.

I wasn’t there. I never knew.

I missed my chance to tell him how much I loved him. How much he saved me that day.

I sent him a message from my heart, as I stared, lost in another place, at a friend’s cardboard fireplace.

I asked Michael to forgive me. I thanked him for what he did for me.

Don’t miss your chance.

Today’s the day..

Your day to unfold love, gratefulness, blessings.

A day to find your fireplace. Your hearth.

Light it.