Last weekend, The Kid and I hopped into the car and went to forage through the wild forest (of Home Depot) for our Christmas tree. It felt a little early to get it all going this past weekend, but when you split your parenting time with someone else, it’s important to milk the holidays as much as you can during the time your kids are with you.
To be honest, if it wasn’t for Riley, I wouldn’t get a Christmas tree at all. Over the last couple years, I’ve embraced my inner Ebenezer: feeling cynical and overwhelmed by the holidays, I’d just assume keep the house dark and cold, and huddle in my chair under a threadbare blanket, rub my gold coins together, and throw rocks at passing carolers. You know – forge the chains I’ll wear in my afterlife and whatnot.
I might be exaggerating slightly. Still.
But Christmas is not for grown-ups, as we know. It’s for kids. So I decided Saturday would be our yuletide kick-off, starting with tree procurement.
We wandered through the tree lot, breathing in the fresh pine scent as Riley surveyed the possibilities. She has high standards when it comes to Christmas trees.
“How’s this one?” I asked, holding one up and shaking it a little to open its branches. Lovely, I thought. Green, healthy, full. Done!
She appraised it carefully, one little eyebrow cocked. “Too short,” she said with authority.
“What do you mean, too short? It’s taller than me. And I’m way taller than you.”
“Nope. It’s definitely too short.”
I spied another potential, a nice looking Douglas fir so tall I almost dislocated my shoulder lifting it out. “Here,” I said. “This one’s so giant we’ll have to cut a hole in the ceiling to put the star on top. Perfect, yes?”
Riley’s brow furrowed. “Hmm. Bring it out more so I can see it.”
Yes, your highness. I dragged it out and held it steady. She walked a slow circle around it and then said, “Nope. It’s not very thick.”
“Daddy, it’s not a perfect triangle!” Her tone suggested that she was truly amazed I’d even consider bringing home a tree like this, which was apparently shaped like a trapezoid. Poor, dumb Daddy.
“Riley, the only perfectly triangular Christmas trees are in cartoons.”
“Begone.” She waved a dismissive hand.
And so it went. I held up trees, and she rejected each one. Too skinny. Too fat. Not green enough. Too patchy. Not enough room at the bottom for presents. Along the way, Riley explained that in her opinion, a Noble fir was really the only acceptable tree for our home. A perfectly sized, perfectly triangular Noble fir. Accept no substitutes. The kid thinks she lives at the White House.
Going with the notion that Christmas trees are like pound puppies (you don’t pick the tree, the tree picks you), we wandered around for twenty more minutes until we did in fact find the perfect tree, which I lashed firmly to the roof of our Saturn. I drove us and our tree home at 5 mph, taking side streets instead of freeways since I’ve always had a deep-seated fear of losing a tree in transit.
By the time we got home, I was feeling weary. Despite the fact that we’d already expended a ton of effort, we had three more hours ahead of us before the tree would be up, decked out in its holiday finery, and Daddy could celebrate with a holiday vodka and tonic. This is the point where I always get cranky, where being a solo parent gets challenging. This is the part where I have to lug the tree off the car and get it into the house, into the living room, into its stand, and somehow do so without swearing as my daughter hops and dances in excited circles around me.
Patience. Calm center.
Once the tree was inside and in its stand, I had to hold it steady as Riley stood back and told me if it was straight before tightening the screws in the base.
“Is it straight yet?” I grunted.
“Nope. Tilt it to the left.”
“Just a little bit.”
“How about now?”
“TOO MUCH! Move it back a little.”
For twenty minutes.
But eventually, the tree stood proudly in the corner. I chose not to acknowledge that it was still listing dangerously to one side.
By the time we were ready to decorate, I was sweaty and exhausted. Riley was bouncing off the walls, so excited that I worried she might have some sort of seizure.
“OK,” I said wearily, “who’s ready for some tree decorating?”
“ME!!!!” she crowed.
And so we finally got to the decorating stage, the part that makes everything else worth it, of course. We put on some Christmas music, snacked on peppermint-flavoed Oreos, drank hot chocolate, and placed familiar ornaments lovingly on branches, making sure to acknowledge all our favorites as we unwrapped them from their crinkly tissue: The vintage Hallmark Santa. The clothespin Rudolph. The University or Florida Gator ornament in honor of her grandfather. The shiny metal letters that stand for her name, mine, and her mom’s. The Indiana Jones ornament. (That’s right.) The clay ornament she made in pre-school that looks vaguely like a star.
We slowed down. We breathed in pine. We even did ourselves a little singing. And after the last ornament had been hung, we sat back and surveyed what we’d accomplished.
It was quite nice.
“You like?” I asked as we curled up on the couch and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
“Yep,” she said contentedly. ”It’s perfect.” And she took another slurp of her hot chocolate.
My daughter’s had to embrace many changes over the last couple years, and get on board with new traditions. Not the least of which is having two different Christmas trees in two different houses. Her mother is gifted at decorating things, at turning regular rooms into magical spaces. I’m not so great at that.
But I can still give her moments like this. Without swearing.