Thursday, December 09, 2010

Because I Said So: No debate here: Make it a real tree every year

In the previous post, I lamented the process of writing a column. Or, rather, coming up with an idea for a column. As I'll do in such situations, when inspiration is slow (as slow as Christmas sometimes) in striking, I walked around our doughnut-shaped house with pad and pencil in hand and stared at the kids, stared out the windows, peeked into the refrigerator and lay down on the couch in my office.

Later that afternoon, we put up the family Christmas tree in our living room. Kristy went to get one and, while she was gone, I climbed into the attic to pull down the boxes of decorations, dug up the tree stand and cleaned it and told the kids, again and again, to stay away from those decorations until the tree arrived.

And when the tree arrived, while I had my face stuck in it removing it from the van, forcing it into the stand and attempting to right it, the one thing that struck me was the smell. The aroma of this particular tree, for some reason, seemed more pungent than in past years and it flooded me with memories and with the season. And since then, I've heard more people comment on the smells of Christmas as they decorate - their own trees, candles and baking.

So here is this week's column as seen in The Commercial Appeal. Smell it and enjoy.

When I was a kid, the Christmas tree lights we had were the large, outdoor-style lights. They were painted bulbs of red, blue, orange and yellow, and the paint invariably chipped, allowing the pure white light to peek through. I don't know where those lights came from; they predated me, but that strand was something we always had balled up in the collapsing cardboard box of decorations hauled from the attic each year.
For our first Christmas together after my mother remarried, my stepdad, Steve, came home with a 14-foot tree that just barely brushed the peak of the cathedral ceiling in our house in southeast Shelby County. In the place of a metal stand was a crude X of 2-by-4s hammered to the trunk just like in the movies. We raised it and used twine to tie it off to various places in the living room to hold it upright in a scene that would have made Clark Griswold proud. I'm not even sure how, or if, we decorated it to the top.
I've had a Christmas tree in every place I've lived as an adult, and all have had one thing in common -- from my childhood tree weighted down with 50 pounds of lights to the towering spruce of adolescence and the very tree in our living room as I write this -- they've all been real.
I refuse to take part in the real vs. artificial debate. I don't want to hear about your aluminum, your multicolored, your fiber optic. There has never been any choice for me; give me the sap, the imperfections, the needles swept up well into springtime and the smell. That smell is the very scent -- along with baking cookies, cinnamon candles and anticipation -- of the holiday season, the aroma of memories.
The tradition in our house has become one where my wife, Kristy, goes to a lot to find the tree. I have no more business choosing a tree than I have in choosing an assortment of doughnuts for this family; something is always a little off -- too short, half of it is missing or dead, there aren't any chocolate sprinkles on any of these. I buy, I don't shop, and I've been known to walk onto a lot and point at the first tree I see. "Tie that to my car."
So she goes, and she has fun with it, and she always finds a good deal and a pretty tree. My job is to cut it from the car, haul it inside and make it stand upright. My job is to keep from saying things in front of the kids that will keep me on the naughty list. But we manage to stand it up, and have it stay there, every year, and once it's decorated and the kids are standing around watching, despite the imperfections, it's perfect.
Not only does it look perfect, but it smells perfect. It smells just like Christmas.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more about him and his family at Alley and Stacey Greenberg, the mother of two boys, take turns on Thursdays telling stories of family life in Memphis. Read more from her at and Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: