The Courtney Tree

We put our Christmas tree up this weekend. There are few things I love more, than a Christmas tree. In trying to simplify my life for the holidays, I really gave some thought to what was important to me during the holiday season. Decorating the outside of the condo? Not important at all. Having a tree? Extremely.

And, oh! It’s the prettiest tree. It took S. and me all of five minutes to choose it, from all the many trees in the lot. I’m not sure what kind it is – S. would know – but it’s full and lusciously green and makes our home smell wonderful.

Getting a Christmas tree was always an event, growing up. On the second Friday in December, my dad would take D. and me to a farm several miles outside of town in order to pick out our tree. I always felt partial to white pines, but the few times we chose them the ornaments refused to stay on the slippery limbs. Sometimes D. and I would fight while choosing a tree, but not always. After picking out our tree the owner of the farm always fixed us styrafoam mugs of hot chocolate (one must be fortified, you know, picking out a tree is hard work). Then, of course, came the difficult part…the transference of the tree into town, getting the tree properly set up in the stand, keeping various dogs and cats from the tree, and etcetera. One year, we went through three trees before we found one that (a.) fit in our house and (b.) didn’t automatically fall over when placed in the stand and (c.) didn’t hit our ceiling. Another year my dad grew so frustrated with the cat, who ran up the tree whenever we weren’t looking, knocking it over, that he took the tree down and tossed it over our front porch. We got another one, later that evening.

The next Saturday, my mom, brother and I would bake cookies and decorate the tree together. From the time we were born, my mom created special boxes of ornaments just for D. and me, so someday, when we moved out on our own, we would be able to decorate our own trees.

I thought about this yesterday as I decorated our tree – about what a thoughtful act it was for my mom to have done that.  Like every year, I found myself surprised and delighted by ornaments I had forgotten about. Like every year, I also found myself crying a little bit, as I pulled out ornaments given to me by my grandmothers, who are no longer with me – the crystal angel, the golden dove, the bright red cardinel. And, of course, the bulbs.

As far as I can tell, it must have been all the rage in the eighties to paint ornament bulbs with the named of loved ones, because I have no less than six large bulbs in varying degrees of shapes with my name and the year painted on them, one each for 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988. Sometimes they say “Merry Christmas, Courtney!” and sometimes they simply say my name. One of them says, Love Grandma. Another has little birds painted on it.

I hesitated in putting all of the Courtney ornaments on the tree. Earlier in the morning, as I strung the strands of white and colored lights around the tree, I found myself suddenly guilty. In the other room, my husband was studying for finals – he has three this week. He took time out of his Saturday to pick out a tree with me, time he didn’t really have, but he couldn’t participate in the decorating of it, and here I was decking our tree in colored lights.

You see, he likes white lights. Growing up, his family never decorated the outside of his house. Instead, they put a candle in every visible window, and lit them in the evenings. They chose simple white lights for their tree.

I grew up with a colorful tree, one with all of our ornaments from grade school, and colored lights. My mom was amenable to whatever D. and I wanted to do to the tree, so one year we laboriously strung popcorn and cranberries, and another we tied lots of ribbons all over the boughs. Year to year, the tree was never the same but instead subject to the whims of my brother and me.

There are many, many difficult things about being in a relationship with a whole.other.person, but I think early in the partnership, some of the more difficult ones crop up during the holidays. To this day I still grow a little sick whenever I have to spend a holiday with my in-laws, and not because I don’t like them. In fact, I love them very much. No, I get a little nauseous simply because it’s not my family, not our holiday. Christmas is especially difficult because, the tree notwithstanding, our family is steeped in Christmas tradition, from attending a midnight (Presbyterian) service on Christmas Eve, to champagne while opening presents, to the same Christmas menu, of prime rib, twice baked potatos, tomato pudding and dilly green beans, year after year after year. D,when he found out his new wife’s family celebrated Christmas on the evening before, frantically texted me. I can’t go there, he wrote. That’s not right. Now, since both my grandmother’s have passed away, I cry every year during the candlelight singing of Silent Night. I cry because for twenty years I sang this one grandma holding my hand and another in the choir above us. When I am with my family, they understand. When I am with my in-laws, I am just over-emotional.

Holidays with a family other than your own, if you are lucky enough to have the kind of growing up I did (and trust me, I realize many people aren’t), are difficult. I always think it’s such a load of bullshit that when you marry you are immedietely expected to feel towards your new family the way you do toward your old one. I am here to tell you I have been married eight years and only in the last two have I begun to not feel like a stranger in a foreign land when visiting my in-laws during the holidays, and only in the last eighteen months have I finally relieved myself of the pressure, the expectation, to feel any more than what I do. I adore my sister-in-laws, delight in my father-in-law and spend lots of time drinking coffee and copying recipes with my mother-in-law. I can spend time, lovely, fun, pressure-free time with them now but it only occurred when I finally shifted my thinking and realized they are not nor will they ever be like the people I grew up with – like my parents, my cousins, my grandparents and my brother. They have their own craziness, their own traditions, their own way of being together during the holidays. They decorate with white lights, they go to mass, they never eat sweets. In order for me to appreciate all of this, I had to stop pressuring myself to feel the familial connections I thought I should have immedietely upon marrying S. And ever since I let go of that pressure, it has become worlds easier to enjoy this still-new family of mine, these folks I’m only just getting to know.

But, back to the lights.

I am pretty sure, when we were first married, decorating our tree went something like this :

Me: i want colored lights – lots and lots and lots.

S: I like plain white lights.


Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but close enough. And I have my tree, my way, every year that we’ve had one. But this year, as I hung all of my Courtney ornaments on the tree, in between the colorful boughs, I began to think about the inherent selfishness of my tree. I had a mom who collected ornaments for me – S. had no ornaments beyond the ones I’ve purchased for him. I had grandmothers who delicately painted my name on ornaments – S. never even knew his grandmothers. I had the consistency of familial roots in Northern Michigan, which meant holidays established themselves into comfortble routines before I was ever even thought about, but both of my in-laws had trecherous childhoods that sent them running from any sort of routine and kept them on the move throughout S.’s adolescence. I have a tree that bares my name in six different places, and my husband’s, not in one.

This colorful tree of mine – it reminds me of my childhood. Every morning my dad and I would get up and eat our breakfast with only the lights of the tree on. My mom and I wrapped presents near the tree – my brother and I often fell asleep in front of it waiting for Santa Claus. It is the tree of a thousand different memories, but I think it’s the tree of my past.

Next year, we will have a tree decorated with just white lights. And we will put candles in every single one of our windows, and for a few years, anyway, we will do that. In the meantime, I’m going to find an ornament that spells S.’s name out in big, bold letters. Maybe I will even paint them myself. Because this is the last year of the Courtney tree.

This entry was posted in Hopelessly Indulgent Reflection, The Private, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Courtney Tree

  1. Stefanie says:

    Courtney, what a beautiful post! We always had a colorful tree when I was a kid too. My husband is Jewish and never had a tree. When we got married our first Christmas I made him decorate and celebrate with me. He didn’t really care but he did it for me. As the years have gone by we no longer have a tree but have created a seasonal celebration we both can participate in and be happy about. Because my husband works in retail we never go visit my family for Christmas. But that’s ok. We have our own traditions now. And besides, we’ve both become vegans and my family’s Christmas dinner is centered around turkey and ham. Our presence would throw them all into a tizzy 🙂

  2. Dorothy W. says:

    Great post! I come from a family that’s not particularly close and doesn’t have a ton of traditions, but I still felt strange the one time I spent Christmas with the in-laws. It just wasn’t right. So I know a little of what you mean!

  3. Cam says:

    The minister who married my first husband and I told us before we married that even if you married someone you had lived next door to your entire life, did eything with, thought you knew everything about….when you got to that first holiday, you would learn that one person was an angel person and the other was a star person — the designation deriving from what sort of ornament you put atop the tree. No matter which you were, the other would be completely alien and just plain wrong! While this is true for the Christmas holidays it plays out for every sort of family tradition. Which is why it is so important to develop your own traditions. I’m sure your tree is lovely — and will continue to be as you create your own traditions with S.

    PS — I’m a star person, I created a box of ornament for my son adding to a new ornament each year (do I stop now that he is 19?), and I think the name on the ornaments thing must have been as big in the 60s as it was in the 80s. After all, isn’t that why elmer’s glue and sparkle exists — to write messages on glass ornaments?

    A wonderful post, Courtney. Happy Holidays.

  4. Smithereens says:

    What a moving post Courtney! In our family your reply “No. MY TREE. MY WAY.” is called a Smithereens negotiation! I am not Christian and married a Christian, so the first time my husband wanted a Xmas crib I was like “No way, over my dead body” (my husband has learnt that everything I say is not to be taken literally). Now we have a nice crib we shopped together in Vienna, and my husband tolerates several Chinese gods inside the crib visiting baby Jesus.

  5. A beautiful post, Courtney. I agree with you that Christmas spent with the in-laws is not the same. I remember my first Christmas out of South Africa, we spent in England with my husband’s family. Everything was perfect: snow, an exquisite little candlelit country church except that I was reduced to hysterical sobs by the carols – I was just not singing them with the right people.

  6. Stefanie – working out your own traditions is wonderful. Right now I’m definitely questioning why S. and I put so much pressure on ourselves to travel during the holidays…surely it’s the quality of the time spent, and not necessarily the time of year? I think some changes are afoot.
    Dorothy – exactly…it’s just not right!
    Cam – what a PERFECT description…star vs. angel person. S. is an angel and I am a star…I’ve never heard it said better.
    Smithereens…it really is all about meshing together the traditions, isn’t it? next year we will definitely have candles in our windows!
    Charlotte…I wonder how long it takes for in-laws to be the “right” people? I am definitely getting there but really, one would think after 8 years I would be there already!

  7. LK says:

    Oh, wht a great post. I hope we get so ee a photo of the current tree.

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