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Challenge: Your Special Traditions

The Real Measurement of Growth

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As we were decorating our Christmas tree this year, we all started noting the lack of space. Could we really be on the hunt, again, for a new tree before next year’s holidays? Right, full disclosure, we are artificial tree people with a side dish of requirements and are also often on the hunt for a myriad of reasons. We typically go slim because we have limited options for its placement. Pre-lit only because once I discovered the wonder (read: lack of struggle) I made a vow to my future self. LED lights only because we have learned that purchasing a non-LED’ed tree guarantees discovering a half lit tree seconds after the thirty minutes spent jamming it into the tree stand in a way that makes it appear straight. A discovery that only ever occurs during the actual holiday season when decorative trees are at their peak price and most limited availability. I’m not embarrassed to say we drove 90 minutes to a non-disclosed location three years ago for an emergency, Hail Mary tree pickup. It was not LED. Last year, we did manage to procure an LED tree in the off-season which would replace the Hail Mary tree having already lost half of its luster midway through its inaugural (and final) use. This shuffling of the trees actually tells our history as a blended family. The next shuffle will not be the product of dimming lights, but the product of our growing ornament collection.

It is easy to count the rings on a tree’s trunk to gauge its life. It is a bit more unusual to gauge a tree’s life by its inventory of ornaments, though it is definitely more heartwarming.

When we moved into our “we’re creating a family” home in 2014, it was in February. There was not a single thought of shopping for a Christmas tree until we got past our first Thanksgiving and realized that neither Rich nor I had brought a decent tree to our cohabitating table. I had used a tiny, non-prelit, single girl tree for years that was deemed only toss worthy when I’d packed up my life for the move north. Rich had vowed to skip the live trees in the second chapter of his life but had not quite pulled the virtual axe. We picked up a tree before they were scarce and set to decorating it with the kids. Hiccup Number One: Severe lack of ornaments. Many pieces created this pie including the splitting of assets during a divorce, my small collection of hand-me-downs bobbles, and an overzealous “just toss it” mantra in the process of packing two homes for a move. Yes, we had a nice, new fluffy plastic tree but it was basically empty of decor. It wasn’t a terribly difficult problem as we set off to Target’s Christmas aisle to collect whatever randomly colored glass balls were still available.

While there, we each picked out our own “this feels like a me ornament” for the tree. Our tree that first year, therefore, was a variety of glass globes surrounding four unique ornaments picked out by four unique people thrown together for their first Christmas as a team. I say “team” because we had not quite reached family status that first year. That was also still a work in progress. The tree was beautiful but still quite full of voids and we learned the lesson of being aware of your ornament inventory before choosing the size of your tree.

Three traditions were born that first year. First, we would hit Target annually so that each of us could find their annual “this feels like a me ornament.” I suppose the ideal timing on that would be to arrive the second the holiday boxes were unloaded and shelved (what is that, August now?), but we find it more entertaining to dig through the leftovers to find our treasures. We show up ready to dig through the scraps about a week prior to Christmas on a seek and find mission. Second, we put the tree up and flip the switch to light it just after we swallow our turkey, but we do not put on any ornaments until the Sunday prior to Christmas when we reserve the night for cookie baking, a virtual yule log, and quiet togetherness prior to the melee that the week will bring. Full disclosure, the “togetherness” is sometimes missing. We have teenagers, sometimes “togetherness'' means eye rolls and speed hanging in order to just be done with all that warm and fuzzy closeness so that they can get back to moping around.

The third, unspoken, tradition is the tree shuffle. After staring at a mostly blank tree slate for two weeks that first year, I added a slimmer, though taller, tree to my post-Christmas cart. The following year, thanks to optical illusions, our tree would surely look stacked with ornaments. I’m not sure why I thought a slimmer, taller tree and the addition of four more self-selected ornaments would change the view as this one also held a high inventory of generic glass balls, but A for Effort. I did remove four of those sterile globes and toss them in a “four in/four out” fourth tradition that I started on my own. I remember thinking that it would take FOREVER to have a tree covered in ornaments that did not look like tiny disco balls, but still, it would start to really be something before too long.

The following year, we accidentally added another tradition. Though I would write who each “this feels like a me ornament” belonged to (and the year we acquired it), the Sharpie scratch often faded by the following year. Something about attic storage erased the map to ownership, so as we pulled each ornament out of the storage box, we’d stop and pick through our brains on which belonged to whom. Oh, a dinosaur…has to be Zoe’s. A cactus? Definitely Zack’s. Star Wars/Space Ship/Martian? Surely, Dad’s. Crockpot? Jyl. Llama? Jyl. Ode to Elf? Jyl. I remain the only member without a theme.

We’ve been through a few trees over the past seven years. I actually like not being too attached to one version or another. The current tree is a bit shorter than I meant for it to be, at six feet, so this year it is living on a box that allows it to brush against the ceiling. This is its third Christmas with us and it continues going strong. Except. What? Except. Are we really? Except we seem to have run out of room on it. How? How have we gone from a world of naked trees, sheepishly filled in with tinsel, bows, candy canes, and tiny disco balls to an incoming need for something a bit fuller in order to accommodate our growing pile of “this feels like a me ornament” ornaments?

Next year will be our eighth Christmas together in this house. We did have one Christmas in the old house that none of us really remember. I blocked it out completely as it was my first time staying up until 3:00am trying to make wrapping paper fit in an orderly fashion over Nerf guns or plushies. The kids block it out as it was probably just too much for their tiny brains, the first time having Christmas at home with Dad and a new roommate before heading to their (bio)mom’s. Rich hasn’t blocked it out because he likes to reference it during the annual telling of how far we’ve come as a family.

I don’t actually need his stories, though they are quite funny. I used to gauge our progress on the dwindling number of naps, caffeine, meltdowns, or wine needed to make it to the 25th. This year, I see that it’s our ornaments that tell our holiday story. Our tree’s growing pile of ornaments, picked from picked through piles, tells our story. Each is representative of its chooser and each one offers up a tale of how that person fits into our family on a given each year.

It is easy to count the rings on a tree’s trunk to gauge its life. It is a bit more unusual to gauge a tree’s life by its inventory of ornaments, though it is definitely more heartwarming.

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