Most Christmas trees are up by now. Especially if the house has a family with little munchkins running around. Our love affair with the scent of pine and the twinkle of lights is the stuff of Christmas magic.
When I was a kid, if you were lucky, you went to the lighting of the tree at Rich’s Department Store, downtown Atlanta. It was the most enormous tree I have ever seen. I hear they have them bigger in places like New York or at the White House in DC, but this one was “our” tree. Atlanta was our city.
It went something like this. If you were inclined, you would drive your little 1966 Ford Falcon the 40 miles into downtown. Park who knows where beneath the towering buildings. The crowd stands shoulder to shoulder along Forsyth Street. Strangers, who for a few moments, are like the best of friends on this night.
The glass bridge over Forsyth is 3 or 4 stories tall. Busy shoppers walking between the buildings, looking down on the street below. Impressive in and of itself. And in the dark, on top of the bridge is the 75 ft. tree silhouetted against the lights of the city sky.
The countdown starts. The sea of voices in unison. 10, 9, 8, . . . . Some lucky unseen Elf hits the switch. And the tree lights up like a rocket ship. The cheers are deafening. There are hugs and handshakes. Smiles bigger than Texas. Small children are sitting on Dad’s shoulders about to explode with Christmas cheer.
Once upon a time there really were department stores like the one in “Miracle on 34th Street.” In a time before malls and cold warehouse outlets. Crazy huge stores with everything you could imagine. The perfume counter with pretty ladies that smelled like an ocean of fragrances. Mannequins dressed in gowns and flannels. The candy counter with chocolate stars and hot cashews. Escalators that moved herds of people from floor to floor. For us, Rich’s was that store.
One of the best things about Rich’s was riding the Pink Pig. This was not the little coin operated ride-em toy that sat outside the grocery store on the sidewalk. This was the craziest, dreamiest indoor ride a kid could possibly imagine. Like a monorail train suspended from the ceiling that ran through the toy department. It was pink. And the front looked like a pig. No kidding.
The trip to Rich’s was the event of the season for us. The candy, the toys, the pig, the tree. Santa sitting in the massive chair. Everything about that store yelled CHRISTMAS IS HERE.
Once you’ve seen the tree at Rich’s, all trees fade in comparison. If that tree was the Rolls Royce, ours was the VW.
One year I got the bright idea that I was going to cut our own tree. Remember, this is rural Georgia. The red clay piedmont. Not exactly home to the perfect Christmas tree. What I found was a scrawny Cedar that would have embarrassed Charlie Brown. I went back and cut more branches from other trees. Brought them back into the living room and used bailing wire to tie them to the trunk and fill in the bare spots.
I think back now how awful that tree must have been. Mama seemed okay with it. She didn’t cry. I don’t think. Those huge light bulbs, red and green and orange and blue, made the limbs sag. We hung a few ornaments. Then covered it with enough tensile to make it look sort of like “It” on the Addams Family.
The time came when we started our own version of Christmas in our own home. My wife and I and the kids. We didn’t have anywhere to cut a tree. We were, in principle, against the artificial trees. So, we did what a million others have done for decades. We went to the tree lot.
Christmas tree shopping is an art. You take the whole family to the tree lot where there are 547 Fir and Spruce that all look exactly alike. They come off the assembly line somewhere in upstate Michigan, I suppose. Everyone walks around in circles all around every tree until dizzy. And after an hour we settle on the first tree we looked at when we walked up.
The husband drags it into the house. The kids are about to heave up a lung shouting with excitement. The wife says, “Turn it a little to the left.” He spins it around. “Not that far. Back just a bit.” Perfect.
There’s a trail of needles across the floor from the kitchen door to the living room. You vacuum. You lug boxes and boxes of stuff from the attic. And the magic begins.
By the time you’re done you’re exhausted. A quick supper of warm soup. Bath time is rushed. PJs are pulled over tiny heads. Hot chocolate is made and everyone takes a seat in the dark. 10, 9, 8 . . . . A little Elf in footie PJs flips the switch and we all sit in awe and wonder, sipping hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows.
We’ve been thinking about Christmas for a long time. Now, the tree lets us know it has officially begun. The room is filled with an enchanted glow. No one wants it to end. We talk about what we want for Christmas. How Santa is going to get down through the chimney. Does he prefer chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies? All the Elves are tired, and bedtime comes too soon.
Things have changed for us. The kids are gone. The decorations are not as elaborate. But the tree remains. And even though it may be artificial these days, it stands in the corner and reminds us of a thousand Christmases that are as real as everything we have ever loved about the holidays. It reminds us of awe and wonder. It reminds us of beauty and love and the things that matter most.
The Christmas Tree. It can be 75 ft. tall. It can be held together with bailing wire. It can be in a two-story foyer in the finest neighborhood. Or, it can be in a 60 ft. double-wide out the county dirt road. It doesn’t matter. If you sit in the soft glow of it’s marvelous light, you might think about hope and peace and good will on earth. You might think about a life full of truth and grace. You might even think of what it was like to kneel at the manger that started the whole thing.
Here’s to hoping that your Christmas is bright. That your tree is perfect. And that no bailing wire is required.