Trim that ugly tree with tradition

“I miss Mia,” Jenny confided to me the other night. “I was just thinking about her crazy Christmas trees.”

My sister and I had a good laugh over that one, and we decided to file it into another of those “Mia stories” categories that just have to be shared with you.

So, in the spirit of the holidays, let me tell you about Mia’s Charlie Brown Christmas Trees.

Is it every child that thinks the size of the Christmas tree in their house is “normal” while every other tree is either “awesomely big” or “tiny”? That was my perspective, at least. My family had the “normal” trees. Not big. Not small. Normal.

And on the Saturday before Christmas each year, we’d visit Hickory, where Grandmama and Grandaddy’s tree was always small and dainty and the decorations were perfectly coordinated, much like Grandmama herself. The tiny, white lights would whisper calm and peace on earth as you entered the formal living room, the room which at other times of the year was reserved for the ladies to have afternoon coffee, in fragile blue and white tea cups with saucers. I was allowed to sit with the grown-ups as they shared their coffee and conversation, so long as I was very careful and did not break any of the ceramics or other delicate items. The coffee time with the women, while the men watched golf in the other room, was always my favorite part of each visit.

In contrast, there was no formal living room at Mia and Pops’ lake house, just one, giant, den surrounded by other, open rooms. The laughter was loud and the afternoon activities included rolling around on the floor wrestling or chasing each other and listening to the adults yelling at the TV, where it was always football or basketball or baseball. And at Christmastime, Mia and Pops had the biggest trees ever. They weren’t so much tall (though they were as tall as the ceiling would allow; sometimes the topper would even be on sideways, flush against the ceiling) as they were fat. From the back door (which was really the front door, but that’s another story), you’d see mismatched decorations, including one that made a god-awful noise (it literally squawked like an injured bird when plugged in) and big, tacky, multi-colored lights that I absolutely loved. What you didn’t see, on first glance, was the secret playground inside the tree. Each year, Mia would hide things “inside” of it. There was a white ladder, always leaned against the tree itself, hidden by the sappy branches. On the ladder were dolls, reaching toward the angel atop the tree, playing in of their own miniature wonderland, unseen to anyone who didn’t know to look for them. I always knew, though, because I (and likely all of my other cousins and siblings) had the inside scoop: Mia would greet me with a wink, a smile, and a nod toward the tree. “Go see what you can find,” she’d whisper, and I’d scamper off to look.

Picking the tree was a tradition in and of itself for Mia and Pops. There was a certain tree farm, between York and Clover, that was the best place to get a Christmas tree, so they said. So that’s where they would go, every year. My dad remembers trapsing through that tree lot even when he was a child, helping his parents to pick out the perfect tree for Pops to cut down and bring home. And after Pops died, Mia insisted on continuing the tradition, and it became the annual retreat for her, my dad and my uncle Larry instead.

If I haven’t mentioned how frugal Mia was, perhaps now is the time. She was wash-the-bread-bags-and-hang-them-on-the-clothesline-for-reuse frugal. She was expiration-dates-on-food-are-merely-a-suggestion frugal. It didn’t matter that she had plenty of money to last the rest of her life and then some.

So, as the years went on, her desire to spend what she deemed “so much money” on a Christmas tree waned. In coordination, the tree farm that was once the place to go, over the years, became, uhm, not so much.  The prices had gone up and the quality had gone down. But IT’S TRADITION SO THAT’S WHERE I WANT TO GO, she would say. And it has to be with my two boys.

So Larry, my dad and Mia would walk through the lot, pick a tree, cut it, put it up in the den, and then proceed to listen to Mia complain about how ugly the tree was.

And each year, the trees got uglier and smaller. But she absolutely refused to go anywhere else. It’s where Pops had always taken her, so it was where she would go. Every year until the last one.

And yet, no matter the tree size, she still managed to find a way to hide the dolls.