I was snacking, probably on pepperoni, cheese and saltines, admiring the tree in its white-lit simplicity. My mom had continued to use fat, colored bulbs for years after she'd tired of them because her five children preferred them. Finally, as we grew older, she made the shift to the small twinkly ones she liked.
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My friend was mid-sentence when I glanced beneath the tree and I began to shout.
"Ahhhh!" I yelled, as if someone had just dropped a hefty lump of coal on my toe.
It wasn't that. Or a mouse. Or something my friend had said.
It was a four-letter word.
Fake. A fake tree at my parents' house. The horror. There had never been such a thing in their house in all my years. Ever.
I saw it as defeat. The end of an age. As long as I could remember, we trekked the snowy road north to Anderson's Tree Farm in Kane, Pa. It was cold, it was a little costly, but it was tradition. We'd saw off the bottom of the trunk and the twigs from a stately blue spruce, lug the tree in the house and growl at each other trying to get it straight in the stand.
My mom would light it. The family would decorate it. Considerate of our feelings, my mom would redo it so it looked good after we went to bed. Then people would rave all season about what a gorgeous real tree we always had.
Real. It was a source of pride. A custom.
My mom had mentioned over the years that she was thinking of getting an artificial tree. My brother and I would jokingly scold her, not really taking her seriously.
It must have been liberating for her to take the leap. Though my mom has since passed away, I can imagine the smile she must have had on her face as she rolled that synthetic sapling in the cart from the store to her car. After decades of child-rearing, her youngest away at college, she was putting aside what had become real-tree drudgery and getting one that had come to make more sense.
It was only seconds after I'd stopped yelling from shock that I came to another startling revelation. I'd been home for a couple of days, and I didn't even realize the tree was fake. My mom had carefully chosen a tree similar in size, color and shape to the real ones we'd always had.
It's a lesson I carry with me through the Christmas season. Celebrating my faith with family and friends is where I want the focus of my Christmas to be. Along with that, I love decorating. It's great fun to give a gift that I know is unexpected and appreciated. Christmas choirs, glittery cookies and cracking out the fine china all suit me.
But I try to choose my frills carefully, making sure they are the ones that matter to my family and me and that we can handle them cheerfully. I see no sense causing myself to become a Santa monster with a clutch of cantankerous elves by trying to do more than I can or care to.
I am not going to be able to do all the lovely things that occur to me this season. And in the end — like my mom with her white lights and artificial tree — I'll be glad I didn't.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is email@example.com.