I carry the Christmas gene. I’m just not sure how I got it.
Though we celebrated Christmas in my family, it was more of an exercise in capitalist assimilation than a religious holiday. Our version was long on cartoon TV specials, short on little baby Jesus. Still, the wonder of Christmas took ahold of me, and I acquired a reverence for it that no other holiday could inspire. Let other kids have their colored eggs and turkey drumsticks and bags of candy — just give me the Grinch and a big glass of eggnog. And most of all, give me a Christmas tree.
My father grumbled about our tree every year. The shedding pine needles, the fire hazard, the constant watering — they disturbed his sense of Chinese practicality. Our family experienced pragmatism as an involuntary spinal reflex. Dragging a tree into the house and festooning it with shiny objects was the most wildly irrational thing we ever did. Maybe that’s why I loved it; it was a garish, tacky, inexplicable reminder that not everything had to be sensible. There was still a little room for magic.
Did I mention it was garish? We didn’t go in for the color-coordinated Martha Stewart Living magazine trees with the tasteful little white lights, and the handmade garlands of cranberries and rose hips. No, no, no! We went for mismatched multicolored orbs, big flashing lights that heated up like cattle brands, and clumps of tinsel heaved onto the tree by little boys who couldn’t reach the upper branches. To me, there was nothing more beautiful.
You wouldn’t know it from the final outcome, but my parents did try to limit the chaos of the tree-trimming. My brothers and I would all hold the tree “steady” while my father attempted to triangulate a vertical trunk. Then he’d climb a stepladder and attach the lights, turning each bulb away from surrounding twigs so we wouldn’t all die in a pine-scented house fire. Next, my mom would add a sparkly gold garland that looked like a drag queen’s boa, draping it in graceful arcs from bough to bough. All the while, my brothers and I would be chomping at the bit to unleash a barrage of tinsel bombs. My mother pleaded with us to separate them into individual strands so they’d look more like icicles, but it was a lost cause. Only in aerodynamic clumps could our onslaught of silver Mylar reach the highest branches.
Once the tree was decorated, presents would start to appear. It was common knowledge that my parents hid them in the attic, but we had an unspoken agreement not to go looking for them. Over the next few days, gift-wrapped boxes would materialize one at a time, and we’d check the tree every hour or so to see if anything new had appeared. I enjoyed presents as much as the next kid, but for me the tree was the big attraction. At night, I used to turn off all the lamps in the living room and plug in the Christmas tree lights. I’d lie there for hours with my head among the presents, staring up through the branches in a blinking trance of red, blue, yellow and green. My mom would always tease me for being “sentimental,” but that’s not how it felt. It was more primal than that — more physical. I was a moth near a flame. I was a coyote staring up at the moon.
Last year, I was on the road for the two weeks leading up to Christmas, and there was no one at home to wield a watering can. For the first time in my life, I went without a tree. There were no needles to sweep up, no lights to untangle, and no dried-up branches to stuff into the compost bin. My father would have loved it: no fuss, no mess — and no magic. To me, it just felt wrong.
I read once that so-called Christmas trees were co-opted by Christianity, along with the winter solstice season. Despite the snow-covered manger scenes on the greeting cards of my youth (“Unusual weather we’re having for Bethlehem, don’t you think, Mary?”), many scholars believe that Jesus was born in summer. But evergreen trees were a winter tradition long before they had anything to do with Christmas.
In the frigid winters of ancient Scandinavia, when the nights were longest and darkest, people needed something to pin their hopes on. Fur-clad pagans trudged out into the snow and brought back something living and green. They decorated it with candles, and let its light and magic warm their shivering hearts. According to 23andMe, none of their Nordic DNA could possibly have made it into my East Asian chromosomes, but I know better:
I have the Christmas gene.
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Jeff Lee wants to build a tinsel trebuchet in Seattle.