Wednesday, December 11, 2019

My “Ugly” Christmas Tree

I’m not one of those people that puts up the Christmas ornaments as soon as we’ve packed up Halloween. Nope, we wait until the day after Thanksgiving, but bright and early that day, both trees go up.  

Yes: “treeS.”  We have two of them.  Both are plastic since we are a military family that moves around the world, sometimes to places where real trees aren’t an option.  But that’s their only similarity.  One is tall, full, and elegant.  It has white lights and coordinating ornaments and is swathed to the angel at the top in a beautiful gold ribbon.  It stands in our living room, and people who see it always admire its beauty.

Then there’s the other one that we keep upstairs in the play room.  It’s much shorter and... well, look, it was cheap.  I got it eight years ago when I’d just given birth to Wyatt, and Matt was deployed.  The thought of buying a real tree, then figuring out how to tie it to my car and get it inside without him was overwhelming, and this one was a steal at Target.  Its branches are a bit scrawny, but it comes with plenty of colorful lights.  

This is the “quirky” one with the very best ornaments — tiny footprint reindeer and cut-out paper Christmas trees with preschool portraits glued on.  Its thin branches hold the snowmen and stars Jayna and I painted the first time Matt was deployed at Christmas, when we were living in Spain,  away from family, and I was hugely pregnant with Skyler.  They’re not beautiful — she swirled all the colors together so that the snowmen are sort of greenish-brown — but when I look at those ornaments, I think of how much we missed my husband that year, but how were were being brave, smiling and celebrating anyway.  

We have two trees despite my frustration about storing excess Christmas décor because this is what compromise looks like when you have five kids that range in age from 4 to 20.  The two oldest appreciate terms like “aesthetic” and “Pinterest-worthy” and have a deep affection for fairy lights, shiplap, and dove gray.  The younger three dig chaos and any vibrant color; they’re proud of their handiwork, as well as that of their big sisters from years gone by.

After we got our trees up, Lilly asked, “Which one is your favorite?”  

I tried to be tactful.  “Well... Both are pretty...”  But then honesty took over.  “The upstairs one, of course.”  

I used to be just like my oldest girls, rolling my eyes and complaining — loudly— about my parents’ use of colorful lights and our Christmas decor that had no theme except “We love it, so it works.” Plain white would be so much more elegant.  I loved to deliver the ultimate word coup: “All our stuff is so UGLY!”  

When I married and started my own family (and we finally had enough money to afford a Christmas presents!), I promised myself that we’d only have white lights and gorgeous decorations, selected to display my flawless and discerning taste.

Then — surprise! — I had a very opinionated daughter.  (Actually, I ended up with four of them, but she was the first.)  “I hate white lights!” Jayna announced at the ripe old age of 4, stomping her foot for emphasis.  “They’re SO BORING!”  At first, I tried to reason with her: “No, look, it’s kind of like snow!  Sparkly, beautiful snow!” But then I stepped into her very small shoes and could see her point-of-view. They were all. exactly. the. same; they were (*gulp*) a little boring.  We went out and bought a bunch of colorful lights and after we’d wrapped the tree in them, she beamed rapturously, declaring that it looked “just like a rainbow!”  

So I had sort of whiplash when, a decade later, she scorned all the colorful lights in favor of only white.  She asked why we couldn’t have decorations that actually looked nice.  When I complained to Matt, he got a smug little smile on his face and said, “I remember how you said the exact same thing once.”  It was maddening.

For years I held my ground, especially when we were living in an apartment in Busan and there was barely room for the seven of us.  But last year I gave into the grumbling and bought the second tree, the “Pinterest tree,” for my older kids.  I can admit that it’s very pretty, but it will never have my heart like the other one does.  

It might sound like a cliché, but I love the “ugly” tree because it reminds me of all the color my kids have brought to my life.  How they’ve taught me to laugh and be silly.  How they’ve surprised me and changed my view of the world.  How they’ve taught me that there is so much more beauty in what is real, flawed, and inelegant than that which is perfect and staged.  

For now, I’ll keep the two trees because everybody is happy.  Well, happy-ish.  (The younger three want my favorite tree to take center stage in the living room.)  Maybe someday we can have one tree with both the colorful lights and the white lights, the perfectly coordinated ornaments and the weird green snowmen.  But most of all, I hope that someday (not any time soon, but someday) wild and opinionated kids explode into the world of my kids, splashing color all over their lives, and showing them everything that’s truly beautiful.