By Suzan Colon
"You're not going to have a Christmas tree?" Even over the cell phone, my mother's shock was palpable. My family has never been particularly religious, but for us, not putting up a tree during the holidays is as close to an act of sacrilege as we can get.
This was last year, when I'd been laid off in early fall, and then watched the economy slide into the abyss, taking people's jobs and homes, their children's college educations and retirement plans with it. By December, I was scared to spend money on anything other than food and rent. A Christmas tree suddenly seemed extravagant.
My mother didn't want to hear about it. "You have to have a tree," she insisted. "We've always had Christmas trees, whether we could afford one or not." Or whether we had space for one in our tiny apartment, or whether we had a stand to fit the tree or a man with a saw to cut the trunk down. On one such occasion, my then-single mother hacked at a tree trunk with a Ginsu steak knife. (The mail-order blade lived up to its promise to "even chop wood and still remain razor sharp!")
My family has no particular holiday dish we make each year, no tradition special to us - except for telling the story of why we've always, always had a Christmas tree.
My nana, Matilda, was born in the Bronx, NY, in 1913. As a child, she was blissfully unaware that her father was a drunkard who wanted nothing to do with her, or of why her family sometimes had nothing more than mashed potatoes and coffee for dinner. She thrived in the soil in which she was planted - her grandfather, Peter, was a stonemason who doted on her, and she had a bunch of friends who lived as she did, in tenements crowded with relatives. As an adult, she'd wanted to write about her life until she read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; she identified with the book so much that she felt her memoirs had already been written.
One afternoon in December, when Matilda was about eight years old, she was walking past the local firehouse, just as the firemen were bringing in their Christmas tree. She stopped to watch them, entranced.
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"Have you put up your tree at home?" one of the firemen asked her.
"No," Matilda said, smiling as she took in the sight of the large tree and inhaled its pine scent.
"Oh, haven't gotten it yet?" said another.
Matilda shook her head. "We've never had one." Nor did anyone else she knew have a Christmas tree; there simply wasn't the money for things like that.
As she touched the needles, the firemen conferred for a moment. "Why don't you have this one, then," one of the men said. "Merry Christmas to you!" Amazed by her good luck and fueled by sheer joy, Matilda dragged the tree, which was much bigger than she was, several blocks to her building and up the five flights of stairs by herself.
When her grandfather, Peter, came home that night, he found a large tree leaning in a corner of the living room and Matilda sitting on the floor, surrounded by bits of white. She was cutting stars and snowflakes out of paper for decorations.
"What's all this, kid?" Peter asked in his soft German accent.
Matilda, in a rapture, looked up; she hadn't thought about what her grandfather might say. The tree suddenly looked very large and out of place in their bare-bones home.
"Please, Grandpa," she said, "Can we have a Christmas tree?"
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Peter was a stern man whose word was law in his house, but Matilda made him smile. "All right, kid. Just don't make a mess."
Matilda was 16 years old when the Great Depression hit, and she was the only member of the family who was able to keep a job. Sometimes, she had to get by on a corn muffin, coffee and a can of soup a day. But she always remembered the grandness of that first Christmas tree, decorated in paper and leaning against a wall. So when things got better, she would get a tree, and when she married my grandfather and inherited two stepchildren, and when she became a mother herself, she made sure there were Christmas trees. When money was tight again, she'd wait until Christmas Eve and bargain for a scraggler that was missing branches in the back. Each year, she saved up to buy a fine ornament - hand-painted beauties with swaths of royal blue against creamy pearl; a rich red with silver sparkles; turquoise "icicles" made from small beads; garlands of tiny glass bulbs in shocking pink, her favorite color.
Last year, those same ornaments, each wrapped carefully in tissue paper to protect them, stayed in sturdy plastic boxes in our basement well into December. Losing my job had meant a six-figure cut in pay. My husband, Nathan, and I had to start paying for our health insurance, the cost of which rivaled our rent. I found little work. A woman my mother knew lost her life's savings in Bernie Madoff's scheme and became a cleaning lady at the age of 60. Outside, the sky was grayish, bleak; I felt the same. Put up a tree? What was the point? It seemed almost insulting to celebrate.
Christmas Eve arrived and our apartment looked the same as it did on any random day of the year. And that's when I understood why Nana, and then my mother, always made sure to have a Christmas tree, even when dinner portions were meager, even when the phone got turned off. They refused to be defined by circumstance, and made a choice not to give in to despair. A blackness like that could swallow a family whole. But the moment when you plugged in the lights on a Christmas tree - even a cheap scraggler missing branches - could keep misery at bay for a long while.
Mom was right; I had to put up a tree. It was too late to go and find one, but that didn't matter. Nana had improvised with her first Christmas tree, and I could do the same.
When my husband came home that night, he found me sitting on the floor, hanging twinkling lights, silver garland and my grandmother's antique ornaments on our shrub-height potted houseplants. Some of the rubber plant's leaves drooped from the weight of the decorations, and the spiky snake plant was no Douglas fir. But that night, they were Christmas trees in all their holiday glory.
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[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]
By Suzan Colon