The rich singing-voice of my German Grandpa is part of the soundtrack of my childhood. We used to live with my grandparents for the summers, and I remember him tucking me into bed with songs from the 40’s. “I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own than have a fickle-hearted green-eyed girl”… And when we visited at Christmas, “O Tannenbaum” in its full original German. Grandpa hadn’t spoken English until Kindergarten, and my great-grandma, who had lived in the U.S. for some eight decades when I knew her, still had an accent so thick I had difficulty understanding her.
I love O Tannenbaum, thanks to Grandpa, but I’ve never liked any of the multitude of English versions. Every attempt to translate into English rhyme seems to have resulted in something insipid or downright nonsensical—an impression made even worse by the fact that it’s undeniably the song with the most exclamation points “per capita” of any lyrics I’ve seen written out. Probably my feelings about it aren’t helped by the version I can’t evict from my mind, sung by the boys in my gradeschool class: “O Tom the Toad, O Tom the Toad, why did you jump into the road? You used to be so green and fat, but now you’re red and very flat”… Yeah, that kind of ruined it for me.
I just discovered that my husband’s high school song was also set to this tune. He went to Punahou, the private school founded in 1841 by missionaries to Hawai’i (and, incidentally, the school our President attended, though “Barry”—as he was called in school—graduated five years later in my brother-in-law’s graduating class). I tease Keoni mercilessly about their mascot, the Lauhala Tree–the one they honored to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.” Or, as he insists: “Da fighting Lauhala Tree, Babe.” It has thorns. Sure, fierce mascot. (I also tease him about the school colors of “Buff & Blue”… I had the full 128-box of Crayolas, and none of them were labeled “buff”—to my generation that’s not a color, but a state of undress…)
Growing up, part of my family’s Christmas tradition was to collect ornaments from all of our travels, so each Christmas when we decorated the tree it became a chance to revisit places and family memories. I carried the tradition forward when I married, and still have the ornaments… But reading the reflections last night of a fellow blogger (Taking Candy from a Baby) about decorating a tree for the first time without her estranged husband, it dawned on me that I haven’t had a Christmas tree since I left my first husband.
That first year I bought an artificial one, but I ended up checking myself into Rehab two days before Christmas, and the tree never made it out of the box. “Christmas,” that year, consisted of calling the ex to ask him please to take the kids (no contest, THE most difficult phone call of my life) and then spending the evening building a gingerbread house with the kids before he came to get them. (And because God has a sense of humor, two days later I was helping to construct the very same gingerbread house with my new rehab-friend, Keoni…) The next year Keoni and I took a belated honeymoon at Christmas and drove to California to spend the holiday with the three oldest kids and our grandkids, so we didn’t bother with a tree.
Last Christmas we were reeling and recovering from our brief but utterly disastrous alcoholic relapse. Our A.A. home group holds “marathons” of meetings around the clock during the Holidays, and we spent the holiday week in solid sober company for about 18 hours of every day. It was a strangely joyful Christmas, but not one for which we decorated at home.
This year our fifteen-year-old (of whom we once again have full custody) asked, with some trepidation, what his decorating-duties would be. His Other Mother evidently made Christmas decorating a chore to be dreaded–so I told him to brace himself, and I’d go get “Christmas” out of storage… I brought him a single box. It’s the beautiful carved nativity scene my mother gave me a few years back, and the one decorative element I’ve put out in each of these years. I don’t have anything against more elaborate seasonal decorating, but I find myself quite content with family-time, with food traditions, with Christmas music, with prayer, and with the Nativity Set as the extent of our “Christmas atmosphere.” (The men of the house are happy with that too, since none of them have to climb around the roof stringing lights…)
Besides… Despite my great childhood Christmas-tree memories, I’ve really had a string of rotten luck with them as an adult. There was the tree that got demolished by my college housemate’s dog… There was the tree I watered dutifully for a couple weeks before I discovered the top of the water-reservoir was well below the “fill-line” I’d been pouring to, resulting in the thorough soaking of the carpet, the subfloor, and a number of packages under the tree… There was the disastrous expedition when I bought a permit to cut a tree from one of our state forests, thinking it would be a great snowshoeing expedition, until my ex-husband got us stuck in the snow on the side of an untraveled forest-service road and we had to dig ourselves out using the snowshoes…
And then there was the ugliest tree in history–the top seven feet of a gnarly, deformed Douglas fir we’d had removed from our yard one December, and which my ex-husband decided we should use for our Christmas tree, pine-cones and all. That particular tree already had a history, as I’d used it to potty-train my son Christian. The summer he was two years old, I told him he could either use the potty, or he could go outside and use the “Peeing Tree” (which accomplished what I wanted in toilet-training–he was going to a designated spot to do his business–and it was enough of a lark that he kept doing it.) So that year, for the month of December, we had the ugly top of the Peeing Tree in our living room. That’s a difficult item to which to devote a serious song.
This year we’ll stick with the Nativity, my Celtic Carols CD, Keoni’s baking, and the company of our kids. And if we sing to the (absent) tree, it will be in German.