I thought I could handle the stress of having a Christmas tree with a toddler in the house. I really did. I thought that, despite all of the steaming anxiety that comes along with being a single dad to a 2-year-old named Charlie (plus Violet, 7, and Henry, 5), having a real Christmas tree adorned with all of my ornaments and lights and shiny garlands was something I could handle.
Here’s what I figured: we’ll cut down a tree together, drive it home together, set it up together, decorate it together, and then stare at it together while we eat dinner and listen to Bing Crosby holiday tunes together. Surely, I thought, if we do all of that TOGETHER, then Charlie would heed his dad’s pleas to leave the damn tree alone out of respect for ol’ Tennenbaum and her grand traditions.
But that was all bullsh*t. I was talking total nonsense to myself.
And I have the proof. Because I wrote it all down.
I documented the first 24 hours of Toddler Meets Christmas Tree.
Brown’s Tree Farm | Centre County, PA | 3:44 PM
Violet, my oldest, has picked out our Christmas tree this year, and it’s a beauty. I’m proud of her and proud of her brother Henry, 5, for not jabbing her in the eye with a stick when he found out that she won the Bielanko Family Christmas Tree Lottery for 2016. It could have gone much worse.
Now, we’re dragging the tree back to the parking lot. Charlie is beside himself with joy. Or candy cane. It’s hard to tell. Christmas spirit or high on sugar? One never knows with a toddler who’s rushing on peppermint. Either way, as his older brother and sister help dad drag the tree across an acre of punishing wind, Charlie is basically hitching a ride. He hangs on to the top of our tree and allows himself to be dragged over stumps and through clumps like some angel fallen from grace.
I tell him to let go as I look back at the scene.
Through the quivering mass of pine I see his face for a fleeting instant. He’s grinning like Jesse James mid-heist.
I shake the tree hard.
He falls off like a mouse.
Gets back up.
Hurls himself at the moving tree.
His nose is all snotty and his cheeks are all rosy and he’s never ever going to leave this tree alone — I can already tell.
Bielanko Honda | Centre County, PA | 4:19 PM
The tree is tied to the roof. I’ve got the Sinatra Christmas album pumping out the stereo. I’m all Griswold right now, oozing Clarkness, so blindly proud of my big family tree-cutting escapade. But I’m just a fool, really.
I glance in the rearview and see Violet watching the cold farm fields fly by. Then I see Henry pensively taking in a distant huddle of cows out in a frozen pasture. Then I see Charlie.
His one hand is gripping tight to the twine that is running above his head, helping to keep our tree on our car. His other hand is holding a tiny sprig of evergreen out in front of his eyes. He’s talking to it quietly, like a bandit talks to diamonds.
I sigh. I know what all of this means.
Bielanko living room | Centre County, PA | 6:33 PM
The tree is up. Somehow. It isn’t tilting or balanced on a paperback copy of Moby Dick like most years, either. It’s just standing there in its stand and not falling down, or trying to, and I’m not sure that I can believe it because I rarely have such luck. But whatever. The tree is up. Best not to overthink good fortune.
Charlie is under the tree, and I’m telling him to get out of there. Like this. I say:
“Charlie, crawl out of there, man.” Nothing.
“C’mon, Charlie, Daddy wants to put the lights on the tree so we can all decorate it. So come out and play with your Magnatiles.” He giggles but no dice. He likes it under there. Squirrel child. Ugh.
I just put the lights on anyway with my son under the tree.
He’s biding his time.
Bielanko living room | Centre County, PA | 6:49 PM
By now, I figured the kids would be tired and I’d have the lights and garland all strung perfectly around the tree and we could maybe just put the ornaments on tomorrow after school. But that suggestion is met with fierce opposition in the form of children hurling themselves on the floor in tears.
Dammit. Ugh. I’m the Grinch now. I cave, and drag out the trash bags full of ornaments.
My older two each pick a few out while their dad gets all tense. I remind them to hang the nicer ones up high where You-Know-Who can’t get them. I remind them that some of these things are really old and dad wants to keep them forever and ever. I remind them that ornaments aren’t toys and we have to treat them like the tokens of breakable joy that they really are. I remind myself of a guy who needs his ass kicked by someone way less uptight.
Then it happens. We’re each maybe five ornaments in when Charlie dives headfirst into the lower branches after a shiny thing. It’s The Bell. I call it “The Bell” because this tiny, piece-of-crap, 10-cent imitation sleigh bell will now play a prominent role in Christmas 2016.
I holler at my youngest son for tree bullying. He doesn’t care. He shakes The Bell hard, smiles his impish grin, takes a wobbly step back, and steps directly onto — count ’em! — not one, but THREE plastic apple ornaments.
I know this because they make a horrifying crunch under his scuzzy shoe. I screech. Charlie looks up at me, smiles, and pulls a wad of garland off a low branch, knocking like nine ornaments to the ground with one King Kong move.
Bielanko living room | Centre County, PA | 7:42 PM
We’ve done it. The tree is decorated and I’m over it. Deck the halls and blah blah blah blah, I’m tired and I want everyone to go to bed as soon as possible so I can scarf down some cold, sad rotisserie chicken and watch 10 minutes of Netflix before my eyes start shutting on their own.
“Okay, guys!” I bellow. “What a wonderful job — CHARLIE, GET YOUR HANDS OUT OF THE TREE, MAN! — what a great job we did. Look at this awesome Christmas — CHAR-LIEEEEEEE, STOP TAKING THE ORNAMENTS OFF! THEY’RE NOT TOYS! — look at this gorgeous tree we decorated. Okay, who cares. Everyone’s tired so let’s — CHARLIE!!!!!!! ARRGGGGGHHHHH! PUT IT DOWN! THAT’S THE SNOWMAN ORNAMENT THAT VIOLET MADE IN KINDERGARTEN!!! I JUST HUNG THAT SO HIGH!! HOW ARE YOU EVEN GETTING THAT?!”
I’m so exhausted. I hate this tree. I hate Christmas. I hate pine. I hate the smell of pine. I hate Santa. I want them to go to bed.
“Upstairs, gang. PJs on, brush teeth.”
Violet and Henry go.
“C’mon Charlie, Daddy will carry you up for bed,” I volunteer in that old familiar dictator tone.
Charlie clocks what I’m saying and processes that it means he has to walk away from the tree.
“NO! I wanna deckwate Cwithmiss twee!” And with that, he throws The Bell and it bounces off my forehead and I die a tiny bit inside.
Bielanko living room | Centre County, PA | 5:55 AM
I’m making coffee, hardly awake, staring at the microwave clock, wondering why I’m staring at the microwave clock, when Charlie comes through the kitchen door from upstairs.
“Hi Dad!” He’s all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. He marches directly towards the living room and the tree I just plugged in 10 minutes ago. This is where, it turns out, he will spend his time if not physically removed, for the next month or so.
“Now Charlie,” I warn him, my voice so freaking annoying to me already, “REMEMBER! No touching the tree or the ornaments! They’re just to LOOK at with our EYES, not our HANDS!” By the time I reach the word “LOOK” though he is already double-fisting cheap plastic Christmas balls off of branches. He squats to grab some, tippy-toes up to get others.
“HEY!” I holler. I sip my coffee. Charlie backs away from our tree with three or four silver and green balls in his arms. He sets them down on the coffee table and looks at them and then looks at me and then he makes that sound that freakin’ Curious George makes when he’s about to ruin something by trying to make it better.
Charlie makes a monkey sound.
I’m overcome with radiant love for my youngest child in that moment. His tender smile. His eyes twinkling in the early morning tree light glow.
“PUT THOSE BACK, BRAT!!!” I yell.
He flings them up in the air at once and spins around and runs straight into the tree. Fifty more ornaments fall off the branches at once.
Someone is trying to tell me something.
Bielanko living room | Centre County, PA | 3:37 PM
I’ve got this all planned out now. It’s the only way forward. I’m gonna save Christmas the only way I know how. I’ve moved a few of the “priceless heirlooms” (AKA: dollar store crap I’ve had for maybe more than five years, plus stuff the kids made — which I DO want to preserve) up high on the tree.
The rest of it?
To hell with it. That’s my new plan. Why not, you know? Why stress myself out over something so ridiculous as a damn Christmas tree and how it’s decorated. I need to let life happen. I need to let Charlie be himself in this situation. He knows not to put the string lights in his teeth. He knows not to pull the garland anymore (that talk, we did have). He knows he isn’t going to be playing with the angel from the top anytime soon. But the bottom branches? This sweet/wild kid’s unexpected love for deconstructing and reconstructing the lower tier of our Christmas tree … I mean, WHY NOT?
We move through the back door after we pick Charlie up at childcare — Violet and Henry, Charlie and Dad. We’re a family coming home. The tree is lit up because I left it lit up. I wanted it lit when we walked in.
Charlie beelines right for it, just like I expected.
He stares at it for a second. Violet and Henry watch him. He reaches. He yanks The Bell off a low branch. Violet and Henry look at me. I smile, bite my lip. He yanks a red plastic ball off another branch. I bite the sides of my gums. Violet and Henry giggle. Charlie stares at his loot and looks at me with his beautiful blues.
“Decorate that tree, brother!” I say to him.
And he thrusts both arms into the pine bowels of the thing with endless spirit and joy.
I bite my lip, dude, but I smile, too.
Because it’s the most wonderful time of the year, you know.