What I know now that I didn't fully appreciate at the time was that my mother was a consummate perfectionist. She liked everything neatly sorted and labeled, pristine, organized, clean. (People who know me must be laughing right now...I clearly did not inherit that gene.) She liked beds tucked tightly with hospital corners – and packages wrapped even tighter, with just the right amount of tape, neatly placed. She liked carols sung in four parts, right on pitch. She liked our bedrooms neat and tidy, with our clothes sorted by size and season. I'm telling you, Mary Poppins had nothing on her!
It must have been sheer agony for her to watch me wrestle with a crumpled mass of paper and hold it down clumsily while tearing off a twisted piece of tape. But she let me do it anyway. I'm sure the potato-print wrapping paper was messy and the candy cane pieces were not uniform. The turtles got blanketed in too much or too little chocolate. But I was having the time of my life! Best Christmas ever!
The one task she never relinquished was the tree – that was hers alone. She insisted on a blue spruce. She wound big colored lights tightly around the trunk. Then placed a whimsical assortment of holiday TOYS on every branch. No balls, no ornaments, no tinsel or frills – just toys – carved, painted wooden ones, old-fashioned wind-up ones, stuffed animals and dolls, all hand-selected, sorted by size, and balanced proportionally on sturdy evergreen boughs. It was a favorite tradition. And so very her...Fun. Not fancy. Fastidious. Yet somehow fabulous.
When I grew up and had my own house I didn't even TRY to imitate that treeful of toys, but I did employ my own brand of perfectionism. The designer in me did a different-themed tree every year or two, including an edible tree made entirely of cut and baked gingerbread cookies tied on with colored ribbon, a Mexican one with brightly colored handmade straw ornaments from south-of-the-border, etc. Some were better than others. The fait accomplix was the year I dried my own hydrangeas and hunted down miniature, ornament-sized pears, apples and eggplants from and Armenian market and wired them to the tree, with excelsior for tinsel. I LOVED it. The kids hated it. They literally groaned when I said I was going to do it again the next year.
So when we moved here a few years ago, I gave my children a gift. I let the tree go. I relinquished my designer pride and let the children do the decorating. They put up all the mis-matched ornaments wherever they wanted. With bronzed mistletoe right next to a clay one hand-shaped by a kindergartener. When they were finished they all declared it the most beautiful tree we've ever had. Because they participated in its creation.
Lesson learned. This year our nine-year-old has decorated the tree all by himself. It's been a three-day project, putting up a handful of ornaments before school each morning, and a few more before bed each night. Today I tried to move one that was crowding the one next to it, and he said I was being OCD, and moved it right back again. So I stepped back. Christmas is a time to let EVERYBODY enjoy the process of doing. And this is his moment to shine.