This article originally appeared in the insert of this week’s Albion New Era newspaper:
When I was a kid, we had a fake Christmas tree that no one bothered even pretending might be real.
It was an aluminum pole with holes in it, like a great silver stick. We’d take the arrow-straight branches out of their paper tubes, fluff out the bright, unnaturally green “needles” of shredded aluminum, and stick them in the holes. Then we’d hang ornaments: Plain balls and bells of difference sizes. Multi-colored lights went on, as did, naturally, tinsel.
I had no idea we were part of a fad that started in 1958, when the Aluminum Specialty Company launched this idea of selling “Permanent Trees” – a fad that faded out at about the same time I discovered the truth about Santa. Ours was a totally artificial bright green; my grandmother’s was white. Not white as in covered with artificial snow – all white.
We also had a cardboard fireplace, unfolded from its box in all its painted brick glory. Santa could have flattened the thing with one strand of white beard.
We knew it wasn’t real: Santa was magic. No further explanation was necessary.
After that we’d set up the color wheel. It rotated slowly, passing in front of a bright floodlight, bathing the living room in red, yellow, green, and blue.
Imagine being entertained by that, at a time when ad companies throw down million dollar digital effects to sell us car insurance.
It was the fakest Christmas ever.
It was the most real Christmas ever.
In 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas came along to poke fun at the fake looking tree trend, effectively killing it. These days you can get trees that look so real you can’t leave them outside, for fear a beaver will get plastic poisoning trying to eat one. They have everything but the pine smell – but then, there are candles for that.
You can get designer ornaments of every design (which explains the name, doesn’t it?), lights that blink out the tune of your favorite pop Christmas carol and also blind overhead airline pilots, and a blow-up Santa to stalk across your roof. Designer Christmas decorations. In every store, aisles of stuff that uses the term “décor”.
But does anyone take the time to look?
At our holiday gatherings kids got underfoot in the same room where the adults traded stories of their good old days. Nobody retreated into the spare bedroom to check their e-mails, and nobody got caught texting under the table. Even when the football game came on, people kept talking to each other. Our lack of modern communications led to … communication.
The whole thing reminds me of the difference between my generation’s simple half hour How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the loud, movie length, effects laden version of a few years ago.
I don’t mean to go all Thoreau on you, with cries of “simplify!” at a time when life becomes more and more complicated. You retreat from life at the cost of opportunity and responsibility … besides, I like my laptop. Still, it seems to me we’re putting too much emphasis on making Christmas look fancy, and not enough on it being real. Can’t we find a little time, especially in this season, to step back and slow down? After all, the origins of Christmas are the simplest story of all: A couple, a baby, and a promise.
Why are you competing with the guy next door, who had to haul in a generator to run so many lights they melt all the snow for two blocks around? Do you enjoy decorating and getting everything ready, or is it just a big, overwhelming chore? Are your plans over the top and burning a hole in your pocket? Does December 26th involve self-medicating?
Well then, just do what makes you happy. You might be surprised how much your kids appreciate not having Martha Stewart parents. Stop making your Christmas realistic, and start making it real.
Maybe you could even haul out a color wheel.