The Christmas tree has its roots deep in Christian tradition, and its spire reaches to heaven. But getting it to stand straight and fit in one of the 11 tree stands you've accumulated over the years is pure hell.
The evergreen tree represents life during the season of nature's death. The Christmas balls recall the forbidden apples in the Garden of Eden. The sweets and candies hung on the boughs were once the wafers of holy communion. The star is the star of Bethlehem, and the lights are the light of Christ in the world.
But it takes a saint to put it up.
"Is this the swearing part?" my daughter asks each holiday.
Her memories of Christmas will be like my own, I fear. My dad used to curse vividly while putting up the tree. It never fit in the stand without a lot of hacking at the trunk. And he could not get it to stand straight without running string from the tree to every doorknob on the first floor of the house.
My father, who worked for Alcoa aluminum company, solved this problem by purchasing an aluminum tree. He trimmed it only with red balls in graduated sizes and illuminated it with a red floodlight.
We children were appalled. "And it still shed," recalls my mother.
Ficus trees with a string of white lights don't count. You have to have the pain. And it is traditional that parents scar their children at this time of year.
My friend Nan recalls her mother lying across the couch and picking tinsel off the tree with her toes while singing, "Tiptoe through the tinsel." Nan converted to Judaism as an adult.
My husband's grandfather always chose a tree with a bald spot. He would fill it in, my mother-in-law recalls, by cutting off branches, drilling holes in the trunk and gluing in the branches.
"We never had a good tree," she says. "I couldn't wait to buy an artificial one."
We, too, have a non-natural tree, I confess. ("Fake, right?" my neighbor says mockingly. "You have a fake tree, right?")
It was my sister Cynthia's idea. She talked me into buying 35 boxes of lights and wrapping each branch individually and permanently. "Then you can pop the tree out of the box every year, spread the branches, plug it in and, 'Wow,' " she said.
Never happened. Not even the first year. My husband spent four days unwrapping the tangled strings of lights. I thought he was going to kill me. (My sister calls me every year to report the lights blinked on yet again. I hate her.)
I hate my sister Ellen, too. Her husband and children go to the woods each year to harvest their own tree. (They make their own Christmas cards, too. With the children. Right.)
My husband and my son did that once and never did it again. I was picturing some kind of Paul Bunyan thing, a single ax swing and a tree falls. The reality was my husband lying in the mud on his back sawing, while my son whined that he was cold and had to pee and wasn't there a place where you just buy trees.
"I don't care, as long as it is up," says my friend Susan. "I have to go into the kitchen and bake because I can't keep my mouth shut. They always pick a crooked tree, and I never like how they trim it. But it wouldn't be Christmas."
"We always fight over who puts on the angel," says my friend Maureen. "It is the holiday equivalent of who gets to sit in the front seat of the car."
Our neighbors always choose a live tree with a root ball that will be planted after the holiday season. It takes three men and a boy to get it up the porch steps. I can't imagine stacking presents around the tire of a wheelbarrow, but they are committed to the environment and digging a hole in the frozen earth in February.
As tense as the Christmas-tree ritual can be, it is a ritual. When I suggested that a neighbor help us set up the tree so we could trim it as a surprise for a dad away on business, my children were horrified. "Fine," I said resentfully. "I don't recall you being so sentimental about gender roles when it's me carrying the garbage to the curb."
We waited for Dad. You can quit baking for neighbors and give up on Christmas cards, but you will find time for the tree each year. With ornaments that recall Christmases past, the tree links all our years together like a perfect string of lights.
So when I see a used Christmas tree lying by the side of the road, the frigid January wind whipping the tinsel Nan's mother couldn't reach, I forget the calamity of its trimming and wish it were time for Christmas again.