Between the Rows: O Christmas Tree

Published online: Dec 06, 2021 Articles, Between the Rows Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appears in the December 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

A tinkle of broken glass. A joyful-sounding, somewhat-less-than-innocent “uh-oh” from the mouth of a toddler. And the sigh of an exasperated mother as she pulls the broom and dustpan from the closet for the third time today. Contrary to all the carols waxing rhapsodic about jingle bells and choirs of angels, these are the real sounds of Christmas.

After moving the little one out of harm’s way and sweeping up the radiant remains of yet another ornament, Mom sets about moving the lowest layer of ornaments another six inches higher, caring very little for yuletide feng shui. No sir, this is all about practicality.

She disposes of the broken glass, puts the broom and dustpan away, then picks up her tornado-angel, who is holding back tears at the injustice of being taken away from his holiday jungle gym. She steps back and takes stock of the tree. Two weeks ago, they spent four hours hiking all over the mountain through hip-deep snow to found this full, nearly flawless beauty. They hauled it home, set it up in the den, and trimmed it as a family. Then, after the kids had gone to bed, she and her husband rearranged all the decorations until the tree looked like it had been pulled from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Now, however, a full four feet is bare at the bottom of the fir, save for the strand of multicolored lights that is sure to be Junior’s next target. There is no longer any rhyme or reason to the organization of ornaments; that ship has long since sailed. Yet, as she gazes upon it, she realizes that this imperfectly lopsided Christmas tree is a perfectly proportional reflection of her family’s life.

Whether your tree is more akin to Mr. Willowby’s or Charlie Brown’s, it ought to stand for everything you stand for.

Her eyes fall upon two little swans forming a heart with their necks, the words “Our First Christmas” scrawled across them, and she can’t help but smile. Here’s the tiny stuffed puppy with angel’s wings her mother-in-law bought the year her husband was born. And here’s a little porcelain Mary Poppins from that trip to Disney World a couple years ago. Crowded next to her is a pink-and-green Santa, hand-painted with all the meticulous care an excited kindergartener could muster. A snowman with a broken-off carrot nose hangs next to a tiny frame holding 2015’s family photo (in which, she realizes with a pride only a mother can understand, everyone looks much happier than they actually were in the moment). Close by, an anthropomorphic reindeer inexplicably and adorably lounges in a miniature teacup.

There’s an itty-bitty Potato Head and tiny and cowboy boots, tractors of red and blue and green, and a tacky sprinkler-head ornament mailed out by the pivot dealer. Near the top, just below the star, hangs a darling little rustic-chic angel she and her husband paid too much for at some gift shop the summer after their first baby was miscarried—a trinket that represents all the pain and love and hope of a life that is beautiful in so many unexpected ways. Amid the tangled lights and fallen needles and chipped heirlooms, a thousand memories dance to a chorus of Nat King Cole and angel song.  

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Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes—even demands—Christmas tree perfection in your home. If you are, I can’t say that I blame you. If there’s any time you deserve to have your living room look like Rockefeller Center, it’s Christmastime. A Christmas tree is one of the few things in this world that can be immaculate without feeling cold and sterile. So if you want to have some elaborate theme and mandate the kids to stay six feet away from your tree, I totally get it.

But that’s not really for me. In my experience, life is, more often than not, breathtakingly exquisite precisely because it is messy and disorganized. From its beginnings in an ancient Bethlehem manger, Christmas has been a family thing; I like my tree to represent that. Just like mud-caked pickups and calloused hands and blooming spud fields, my perfect Christmas tree is full and fragrant with a hint of organized chaos thrown in for good measure. Whatever your style—whether your tree is more akin to Mr. Willowby’s or Charlie Brown’s, whether it’s worthy of the Whoville town square or a studio apartment countertop—it ought to stand for everything you stand for.

*          *          *

The back door opens, and she can hear her husband unzip his coat and shake out of his wet, muddy boots. He makes his way into the den and tousles the little one’s hair. Standing close behind her, he places his icy hands on her shoulders and kisses her cheek. “Merry Christmas, babe,” he says, and she knows it will be.