The Perfect Symbol of Christmas

Copyright © 1998, 2011 William Mego

Every Christmas, in the family quarters of the White House, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt kept a real Christmas tree. And they apparently lighted it with real candles that they insisted on burning long into the night. The Washington, D.C. fire marshal, it is said, really hated Christmas.

Nobody who had ever seen a real tree burn would ever use candles. Anyway, the '90s are so frantic that today we would probably have to burn the candles from both ends, making their attachment to the tree problematical.

Our tree is one of the fireproof kind, a sorry-looking assemblage of thick, twisted wire, with stiff bristles of forest-green plastic. To assemble it, the ends of the wire branches must be inserted into holes drilled into the painted wooden rod that serves as the trunk.

Money was tight the year we bought it, so the original tree was sparse and somewhat bare. We told each other this was charming, in a forlorn sort of way, until we got the chance to pick up a collection of similar branches at a garage sale.

Although that made the tree look less like a moldy coat rack, we now have a bewildering variety of different-sized brandies and different-sized holes into which to insert them. As you might imagine, this means that it is virtually impossible to assemble the tree the same way twice. Its final appearance depends entirely upon the same chaotic forces that govern global weather and the trajectory of a falling leaf.

Predictably, our bearded, more seasoned, family member rants and raves about what a crummy tree it is, how devilishly difficult and time consuming it is to assemble, and how we really can afford a better one.

And every year he takes it back. There is something to be said, he concludes publicly, about an artificial tree that, through the sheer ingenious complexity of its design, turns out looking completely different every year. It adds that element of fatalism and resignation usually reserved for those who buy a real tree.

Privately, that bearded, more seasoned, member of our family has come to understand that the stupid tree is the perfect symbol of Christmas. Each year you manufacture a Christmas from a lot of odd stuff that doesn't look like it will ever go together, and every year it comes out looking different. Some years it's absolutely charming, and some years it's totally weird.

There are too may variables, too many different branches and too many different-sized holes, to predict how it will come out. Laughter seems to help with the assembly, so does patience, tolerance, and understanding. Eggnog, however, is absolutely essential.

Some years, you have to try to put it all together despite the fact that there is a big piece missing. Those years are the hardest. If this is one of those years for you, I pray that you will find some peace during the holidays. It's a very imperfect world, and yet its creator wished to be born into it. That must mean there are very worthwhile things to do here.

This year, we had good luck with our tree. As you read this, Nancy and I probably will be gathered around it with our two sons, their friends, our daughter, and our son-in-law.

And this year, I will have the privilege of sharing his first Christmas with my brand new grandson Marcus. He hasn't had much experience with trees, but I'm pretty sure he will like it no matter how it happened to go together. And that is, perhaps, something I can learn from him.