Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.105]O Tannenbaum! A tree by any other name would smell as paradoxical. Perhaps no tangible trapping of Christmas can equal the Tree in generating ambivalence.
To begin with, if you are genetically of the breed that observes Christmas at all, you must have a Tree. Many folks have wondered, in the privacy of their post-Thanksgiving picking on the turkey bones, if they couldn’t merely forgo the Tree this year—just for a change, just to simplify things a bit. Well, those who have tried it report that it is, in fact, simpler to have the Tree in all its complexity than to explain, over and over again to all, why you don’t have one. A certain affluent family of my acquaintance staunchly resisted being treed one Yule, only to discover, on Christmas Eve, a fully decorated Tree on their porch, along with a cardboard box of groceries and an assortment of dime-store toys for the children. Charity may never fail, but her eyesight can blur from time to time—especially if a Tree is not in sight.
Long-married couples who have finally nudged the last fledgling out of the nest sometimes think, “Now this year we don’t [p.106]need to have a Tree.” Wrong. Word will spread quicker than spilled milk, from Fresno to Philadelphia—“The folks aren’t having a Tree this year!” However inappropriate, pity will well up, then guilt—and before long, the good couple will have not only a donated Tree, but all of the chicks back in their laps, determined that the Folks won’t have a lonely, Treeless holiday. Of course, all chicks will disperse before it is time to take down the Tree and vacuum up the needles.
Ambivalence lingers even in households quite dedicated to Trees. Take my friends Jean and Elayne. Jean likes big, full, bushy Trees, robust, hearty specimens whose vigor and pungency remind her of the forests deep on a starlit night. Elayne, for reasons known only to her analyst, always searches for a spindly little “orphan” of a Tree—one that she can rescue, bring in out of the cold, and turn into a Cinderella Princess with baubles and bangles and a veil of tinsel. After several years of unsatisfactory compromise (resulting in two martyrs where only one was needed), Jean and Elayne now solve their problem by alternating—one year a big Ethel Merman of a Tree that dominates not only the room but the house and most of the block; the next year a quirky little Meg Tilly that has to be coaxed to stand up straight in its metal base.
Friends Polly and Roger have a different ambivalence to deal with. They solved the problem of choosing a Tree some time ago: they bought a fine artificial model. But two years ago, Roger fumed amid a snarl of wires and bulbs, “I’m not going to put the lights on and off this Tree one more time!” So now, on New Year’s Eve, Polly and Roger shroud their Tree—lights, decorations, and all—in a large green garbage bag and put the whole thing downstairs. The following year, they whip off the cover and behold—Instant Tree. Yes, the whole subject of the Tree is draped thick with ambivalence. Use the old decorations, worn ragged with tradition, or toss them all out and start fresh? Put the Tree up right after Thanksgiving and enjoy it all month, or spring it full-blown on the children on Christmas morn? Go the whole distance, with a Tree that scrapes the ceiling and crowds out the couch and two relatives, or prudently settle for one that perches atop the TV and seems forever an afterthought?
Well, maybe the tree is a compromise, after all, and a paradox. In the quiescent season of the year, at Winter Solstice, we bring into our homes the Tree that is ever green, to remind us of [p.107]spring’s promise. In the darkest days, we light strings of colored bulbs and candles and fires to cheer ourselves and our neighbors on our way. These lights are not, after all, the summer sun, and the Tree, hauled down from Oregon or assembled in a factory in Taiwan, is not, after all, a crocus or a shimmering aspen alive on the hillside. But neither are we ever quite what we would like to be, ever quite what the promise said we could be. Yet that doesn’t ultimately matter.
I think what matters is that we keep on, December after December, wrestling good-naturedly with the Tree, and that whether in observance of Christmas, or solstice, or Hannukah, or our own inner season, we keep on lighting candles amid the darkness.