Hi, I’m Mary, and this is my column no one asked for about things I like!
Aside from the stress and anxiety about spending time with my family, I love the holiday season. This is one of my favorite times of the year and it always feels extra special in New York, the chilly air filled with holiday cheer, the light low and the sidewalks lined with festive, fragrant Christmas trees. For these few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, everyone is a little friendlier, quicker to smile, if not eager to say hello then at least willing to. No matter how old I get, I find myself submitting to the magic of Christmas year after year. I may not believe in Santa Claus anymore (what if I did lol), but children do and that’s enough.
It always feels like the holidays go by too fast. On January 2, the magic is gone and we’re left with post-indulgence bloat, credit card debt and three-four months of freezing cold, dreary weather. So I try to get into the holiday spirit as much as possible while the getting’s still good. One thing that helps me do so is buying a shitty little Christmas tree.
One of my mom’s friends recently posted an article on Facebook that named my hometown the most Christmasy place in all of Massachusetts (what an honor!). I wasn’t surprised, recalling the elaborate holiday displays of my youth, most of which my mother thought were “tacky.” To be fair, they were tacky. Certain streets were littered with giant, blow-up snowmen glowing against the night sky and life-sized Santas sitting in their sleighs, in front of which stood all eight reindeer. I loved all the ostentation but my mother would shake her head with disapproval until we passed a house with little more than a wreath and a few lights strung in trees, at which point she’d nod in approval.
Our house was always decorated tastefully, obviously. When I was growing up, we lived in a big house on the corner in a family-friendly neighborhood. The people we bought the house from left behind a giant wreath form, which they had decorated and mounted on the front of the house every year. My father, a natural handyman, felt pressure to continue that tradition, no matter how frustrating it was. So every year, he’d take out the big metal circle, buy a bunch of evergreen boughs and make a huge wreath, complete with a big red bow on the bottom.
In my memory, its diameter was about six feet, but it’s possible it just seemed that big to me because I was small. Regardless, it was at least big enough to send my father into a rage every year, particularly when it came time to hang it. I don’t remember how he managed to hang it on the on front of the house, but I think he dangled and secured it from the attic. It was the kind of insane endeavor only a true crazy person would take on, which is why my father was always up for the task.
Though the wreath was by far our grandest holiday decoration, my mother would deck out the inside of the house as well, placing (electronic) candles in each window, which she’d turn on every night as soon as it got dark, draping garland on the mantlepiece and up the banister between the first and second floors and placing all sorts of little Christmas knickknacks in the living room. She had nutcrackers and stuffed Santas, musical snow globes and a collection of little Norman Rockwell shops that lit up.
I loved to help her decorate, and we’d usually make a day of it, rocking out to the Muppets Christmas album on cassette while turning our home into the North Pole. We always spent another afternoon making cookies and fudge sauce, which my mother would send to school with us to give to our teachers. We’d watch White Christmas and my sister and I would fight over who got to be Judy because, even though Betty was clearly the more talented sister, Vera Ellen was so thin!
Christmas is in my blood, not just because I descend from a long line of Catholics but because my mother made it special. Santa gets all the credit but it’s moms who create the real holiday magic. After mine died, I tried to carry on her mantle (literally — my sister and I decorated it the first few years after she died), but it was too sad. My sister and I would go home just a day or two before Christmas, decorate the house and help my dad make a whole holiday dinner for his family, which always came to our house to celebrate. With no children and few moms in attendance, it became more depressing every year.
For the last few years, we’ve gone to Atlanta to visit my brother instead. He has two children who still believe in Santa and, better yet, a wife who loves Christmas. She decorates the house in a manner my mother would approve of, festive but classy.
My sister-in-law loves Christmas so much that she always insists on getting a tree the day after Thanksgiving. When I was a kid, we never did that. We always waited a few weeks, until my parents could find an afternoon when they were able to round all of us up and go to a nearby Christmas tree farm. We’d wander around, often in the snow, and pick out the perfect tree together, then my father would cut it down. That part of the process was never peaceful, and we, as my dad would say, learned a few new words every year.
Once we got it home — another dramatic part of the process — my father would mount it in the living room (more fireworks) and, once it was more or less steady, storm off in a huff and leave the rest of us to decorate it. I loved decorating the tree. We’d bring down box after box filled with ornaments, some beautiful, some trash we’d made in second grade. We’d hang them all.
Though I no longer go home to decorate my parents’ house, I always get a tree for my own apartment. It’s a much smoother process than the Christmas tree adventures of my youth, but not entirely without drama. I inherited my mother’s love of Christmas and my father’s insistence on finding the perfect tree, though in my case the perfect tree is the ugliest, tiniest one I can find. My sister and I can’t fit a real tree in the small apartment we share, so we have to get a small one, and I figure if we’re going to get a little one, we may as well get the ugliest one. I think of it as adopting a rescue, the tree with the longest stick on top or the barest branches. This year I got one that had been screwed into the base at an angle, so it always looks like it’s about to fall over. It’s perfect.
If you’re wondering where the drama is, it’s in the pricing. Since I’m determined to buy the worst tree, I expect to pay the best price. This can be a challenge.
If you’re an experienced New York City Christmas tree hunter, you know most of the sellers are French Canadians who travel down from Quebec after Thanksgiving and stay through the holiday. I have no issue with foreigners — as long as they give me a good deal, which the couple who sets up shop at the end of my block rarely does. I try every year, and a few times I’ve gotten the male half of the partnership to offer me the worst tree for $25 (still too expensive, but worth the thrill of talking him down $5). His partner, however, has me sniffed out as a deal hunter and often interrupts at the last second to tell me it’s $30 or bust. I always say, “No thank you,” drop the tree and walk off.
This year, I decided to save myself the headache and went directly to the reasonable shop where I purchased my tree last year. Once again, the kind French Canadian woman in the little sidewalk hut told me the smallest trees are a very fair $20, so I handed her a crisp bill and carried my little tree a mere 25 blocks home, triumphant.
I love having a little Christmas tree so much that I usually semi-accidentally leave it up until March. It provides an abundance of cheer, sheds the perfect amount of light on my living room and the kids love it (by kids I mean puppies that don’t belong to me).
They say it’s important to start your own Christmas traditions with your family, and one day when I have a family (and, presumably, a home with enough space for a real tree), I will. But for now, I’ll stick with my tradition of buying an ugly little tree, stringing it with lights and the few ornaments I own and leaving it up until it’s covered my couch in stiff pine needles. My little tree may not make Christmas feel special, but it reminds me that it can be, and that’s enough.
As always, I’d like to clarify that this is NOT a sponsored post. I received nothing for it and am pretty sure no one cares that I like tiny, ugly Christmas trees. Still, if anyone is reading and ever wants to give me literally anything for free, tree or not, I WILL TAKE IT!!!!!!
Anyway, I hope this was helpful. I’ll be back with more unsolicited recommendations soon!