Inside the Christmas tree

In honor of Christmas I’m sharing some bonus content this week. Here’s an essay I wrote for KAXE a couple weeks ago. The topic for the show that week was “Christmas Trees.”

Inside the Christmas tree
By Aaron J. Brown

HOST INTRO: It’s Between You and Me on KAXE. Today, with the holiday season upon us, we’re talking about Christmas trees. Our contributor Aaron Brown O-PINES about Christmas trees.

Christmas reminds us that we survived another year and still have some semblance of a family and a haphazard network of friends. We made it. As bad is it might be, we might make it another year. Maybe. In honor of this melancholy truth we cut down trees and put them in our houses. Look at this, we say. Sometimes we buy fake trees. Look at that. Same deal.

My memories of Christmas trees are as unique as what is likely my own mild form of mental illness. For most of my childhood we cut a tree from the swamp out behind our house. As a kid I believed that Christmas trees made our ornaments – the wooden soldiers, angels, penguins and reindeer – come to life. The dark recesses of the branches were like some kind of yuletide ghetto, the sort of ghetto where it was not so bad, on account of the holidays. Santa and the shiny angel jockeyed for control of the all-important star near the top of the tree. The lesser ornaments, the expressionless clothespin kid on the skis, the icicle I made in kindergarten, would work for a foothold in their respective organizations. Politics and drama played out nightly under the C7 bulbs, lighting the cold streets of my tree world.

In another reverie I brought a notebook with me to my grandma and grandpa’s house for Christmas Eve and set up station beneath their enormous holiday fir. I used the long down time between the strange, Midwestern mid-afternoon meal we ate to the 7 o’clock sharp present-opening time to document the proceedings. Naturally, as a kid, I didn’t have much first hand information, only what could be observed. Adults determined the timeline. Adults already knew what was in the packages. Adults controlled my access to the pile of loot. So I’d record the size of the presents with my name on them, comparing them with the relative size and shape of my sisters’ presents. I’d observe the tree, always gigantic at my grandma’s house, and note minute differences in the ornament locations.

I’d further speculate in short, staccato dispatches about the activity of the authority figures in the home – what’s grandma doing, is anyone checking their watch yet? I guess you could call these primitive tweets in the years just before the rise of the internet. What was I looking for? Well, how many cans of barley pop were on the table? Had pie been served? Had everyone arrived? Had certain people left? How loud was it? How hot was it? Each of these factors influenced the opening of presents, in my four to five years of conscious memory and self awareness. I’d detail these observations on sheets of paper that I would then roll up like scrolls and tuck into the arms of a stuffed animal. These records, to my knowledge, are lost to history.

It’d be better to end this with a heartfelt message about how I learned that Christmas is really about giving and that the symbolism of our family gathered around the tree is what matters most of all. That’s true, I guess, but I didn’t learn that until much later when I realized how much work goes into putting up a tree and providing for a family. I no longer think about confining a box of shiftless ornaments to the tenement branches, watching the angels play the angles on the mean streets of pine tar alley. Or at least not literally. We always do put up a tree, though. The kids love it and it reminds us that we’re still here.

HOST OUTRO: Aaron Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog

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