If you are ever in New York City and it starts to rain (and you’re in NYC now, the chance is likely), you will be shocked by the volume and velocity at which umbrella sellers pop out of the wood-work (steel-work? concrete-work?). It is as if they lie in wait in manholes, a bulging bag of black umbrellas strapped to their person. The second that first drop of rain hits, they are on every street corner shouting “UMBRELLAS! UMBRELLAS! FIVE [or 10 depending on the part of town] DOLLARS!” I’m guessing most of them do it without even watching The Weather Channel.
It’s similar, though not as impressive in spontaneity, when Christmas trees arrive in Manhattan. New Yorkers never see them arrive, though perhaps we imagine the magical smelling trucks that must bring them on the island, but the morning after Thanksgiving Christmas tree forests have sprouted up all over the city streets. There’s nowhere else to put them in Manhattan- no empty lots, no space. Nor is there a place to bring the trees into at night, nowhere to lock them up. The people selling them make little tents out of tarp between trees and wreaths and camp out for the whole month of December. No one complains, who wouldn’t want to walk through an evergreen forest that masks the notoriously ugly city smells and makes you think warm fuzzy thoughts as winter winds begin blowing the contrary? In fact, thinking about them now, why can’t they stay up all winter?
When I decided I wasn’t going home for Christmas, I knew I’d have to put some effort into generating my own Christmas cheer. It’s easy to leave that to your parents: those who created Christmas magic to their children in the first place. While I was ready to have my first Christmas away from home, I was not ready for my first Christmas without a tree. Midway through December, I was cruising the above Christmas Tree Pop-up Shop (yes, that’s a thing in NYC “pop-up shops“) in my neighborhood (Upper West Side) and to my horror discovered nothing for sale was less than $30. That’s enough to suck the Christmas spirit right out of a starving artist. Or any 20-Something, really. So we did what we always do when something is too expensive in our neighborhood, we went to Harlem. When I say “we”, I really mean my roommate. I can’t take any credit for finding this little beauty of a $10 Christmas tree.
It smells just like a $30 Christmas tree and that’s what really maters. We strung it with a costume-jewelry pearl necklace, some holly berries, and for ornaments we used earrings. The topper started out as a Santa hat, but after some office gift exchanges, changed to a bona fide star. It was nothing like the Christmas trees of my youth, but it was perfectly suited to me, my 2 lovely roommates, and our cozy, craigslist-furnished apartment.
I think even my mother would have approved, though it’s nothing she would ever let into her house. Many families have a tradition of togetherness surrounding the Christmas tree. The tree is selected together, brought home together, and then everyone in the family decorates it, each person putting on their favorite ornaments. I know many families who do this (like my cousin’s family for instance, they make it look so fun), but none of these are activities I have ever experienced. I suppose the New York cliché, on the Upper East Side at least, would be that the housekeeper decorates the tree. Fortunately, that’s never been my experience either.
The fact is, my mother is extremely particular about her Christmas tree. It must be just the right species of fir, the proper width and height, precise distance between tiers of branches. It is in the processes of outfitting the Christmas tree that my mother’s perfectionist streak displays itself. The lights are colored lights, which might surprise you. Clear seems to be the favorite of Christmas tree
snobs perfectionists. It will certainly surprise you when I say my mother insists on colored lights of only red, green, yellow, and blue. This has grown increasingly difficult over the years, with yellow often being replaced by orange and pink being added to many strings. Not on our tree. Only true red, green, yellow, and blue have a place in our living room.
I remember attempting to hang ornaments as a child, perhaps one I had made that day in class. Like most children, I imagine, I didn’t give much thought to my placement. Any ornament I ever hung was moved to a different place on the tree, to a branch that supported its weight and size just so. Soon I gave up trying, “Here Mom, you hang it up.” She’s the queen of our family Christmas tree, no doubt about that.
I couldn’t help but wonder around Christmas time: When I have a tree, will I know how to decorate it? Will it be a mass of sagging branches with pathetically placed ornaments? I’m happy to have practice on $10 Harlem finds. I’m happy to report I did very well hanging earring ornaments. Thank you very much. The thing that’s harder to report? I…moved several that my roommates placed on the tree….that branch isn’t the perfect place for that one, this one would be better suited to a branch higher up…
Your mid-twenties, is that about the time you start to realize you’re turning into your mother?
I know it’s strange I’m writing about Christmas nearly a month after the fact, but I’m enjoying it. Helps me hold on to that cheerful, holiday feel a little longer. Do you agree? Are you just happy I’m updating my blog? Or do you wish I’d live (write) more in the present? I hope to get to that next week…ha ha.