I didn’t have a real tree growing up. My mother was philosophically against it.
By “philosophically against it”, what I mean is that my mother was cheap and lazy. She didn’t want to spend $50-$150 a year—every year—on a tree that would need to be watered, pine needles that would need to be vacuumed and a desiccated pine tree carcass that someone would have to haul out to the trash can around January 12.
When I was about 10 or 11, one of my three older sisters spent one of her three paychecks on a real Christmas tree for our finished basement. She said the smell of the tree was beautiful. I said it gave me migraines. In the end, we only had a real tree that one year because my mother was right. It was expensive and labor-intensive, and not worth the effort to please one person.
Growing up, people would always sneer at me when I told them about our family’s fake tree. I really liked it. People liked to tell me I was wrong. “No, no, no…it’s not Christmas unless you have a real tree. It’s about tradition, Meghan. How can a fake plastic tree remind you of all the Christmases that came before? How can a fake plastic tree seem…real…like, emotionally real.”
To be honest I don’t know how a real tree that you buy afresh and throw out every year can feel emotionally real.
We had the exact same Christmas tree for all my Christmases in Delaware. There are stories about me as a baby looking at the blinking fairy lights on its boughs and giggling. I can remember being a toddler and scooting my body underneath so I was looking up at the steel pole that supported it. It was wild. I saw all of the branches, tinsel and front-facing ornaments from below and behind. I could see the man behind the Christmas curtain. When I was old enough to finally pitch in, I used to help my father secure the base. He taught me when I was five—almost six—that I was smart enough and strong enough to screw the base to the pole myself and then he took my advice on how to arrange the branches we would hook onto it. I was sent to fetch my mother to put the vintage angel they’d had since the 1960s onto the tree top before he plopped it on top. They had gotten the angel early on in their marriage and every year it was my mother’s job to place it. Watching my dad watch my mom put the paper cherub aloft the tree made me feel like even though I was one of those pesky, unplanned late-in-life babies, I still had a connection to the very beginning of my family.
The next year, my father was dead, and it was my job to explain to my mother how to set up the base the way he had shown me. Doing happy things that reminded me of my dad like that were my first forays into the sensation known as “bittersweet”. It made the hole I had inside of me for him gape a little wider than usual, but it also made me feel close to him again. Only a year ago he had held the same evergreen painted pole steady while I twisted the same screws through the same base and into the pole. And he had been right. I was smart enough and strong enough to do it myself. My mother laughed because she didn’t know how to do it, but at six, I did. I smiled and felt proud that my dad had been right about me. I could do things on my own.
That’s how it was every Christmas after that until I was in college. The same pole. The same base. The same screws. The same boughs. The same tree top. The same tree. The ornaments changed over time from the corn husk dolls my parents had bought in the 70s to the angel ornaments my mother had been collecting on her own after my father’s death. The decorations were changing in time with how my family was changing, but my family’s tree was the same all throughout my childhood. And that was nice. That was really, really nice.
I know a lot of people are repulsed by plastic trees. They have their own traditions. I grew up with mine. Not to be completely cheesy—okay, I’m about to be completely cheesy—but that fake tree was real to me.
And anyway, I never met a plastic tree that had a fragrance so strong that it gave me a headache. There’s something to be said for that.