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Working hard to be festive, all by myself


Ungrateful pine needles pricked me as I wrapped the seventh string of lights around the boughs. “There,” I said, sitting back on my heels and rubbing my tender palms against my jeans. It was beautiful, I could tell already. Each light carefully positioned, starting deep inside the tree. Crawling forward, I reached under the branches and flipped the switch.

They glowed like illicit South African diamonds for about two seconds. Then all seven strands went out at once. Curses finally spent, I resorted to logic: The failed string must be the very first, the one twined around the trunk. I’d have to pull off every single strand to get to them.

I started pulling, and in an instant seven strands were tangled into a model of the molecular system. I tugged harder, and branches of the 34-year-old, loosely wired tree started flying out of the trunk as though possessed. Only then did my husband return to the happy tree-trimming room and point out, as he helped me floss apart the tangle, that all we’d needed to do was change the fuse in the plug. I hadn’t asked, because lights were my private obsession. Every year, Andrew watched me twine and position and tweak. Every year, his cheek muscle twitched, but he kept a careful silence.

Now, as the tree of his childhood dismembered itself before our eyes, he burst forth with every suppressed emotion he’d ever had about my Christmas lights. Excessive, they were, lit up the room like Red Square on Mayday, and the way I strangled the branches it was no wonder … He didn’t finish the sentence. But I knew that deep in his heart, far below history’s logic, he believed I’d killed his tree.

“I hate all this Christmas fuss anyway,” he muttered, lassos of lights hanging from each forearm.

“Hate Christmas?” By now it was 2 a.m., so that was all I heard. I sobbed till 3.

Just that afternoon, I’d been drinking coffee with a friend, enjoying the background tape of English madrigal carols, and she’d snapped, “I wish they wouldn’t do that.” Meaning play carols.

The other reporters at work were already making dark bitter jokes about the holidays.

Another friend was so weary of her husband’s humbug, she’d threatened to sell all their ornaments at a garage sale.

And my parents had suggested we skip the traditional sit-down Christmas dinner and eat sandwiches instead.

“What is the matter with all you people?” I shrilled. “Christmas is festive. It’s about hope and love and joy. What is so bloody problematic about that?”

Apparently a lot. Because the next day, after Andrew left for a business trip, I began grilling everyone I know. And nearly all of them welled up with sadness or cynicism when they answered. Christmas wasn’t like it was when they were children. Christmas was for children. Christmas was a commercialized travesty. Christmas was invariably a disappointment. They never managed to feel that Christmas spirit everybody harped about. Christmas was a conspiracy to make people feel inadequate. Nobody had the time to relax and enjoy each other’s company anyway, so how were they supposed to feel joyful? Joy required living in the present moment -- a privilege reserved for fools and babies.

Taken aback by this deluge, I scrambled to higher ground. Maybe if they just did something, I grumbled, instead of sitting there with their arms folded waiting for the spirit to descend. … Let them grouse. I would be festive all by myself. On my lunch hour, I surfed the Internet looking for softer-glowing Christmas lights (my part of a goodbye bargain that licensed me to buy any tree I wanted). I read, I made phone calls, I priced the fanciest fiber optic trees at the most gaily bedecked shops.

I came home tired and empty-handed, missing my grinchy husband.

Appalled at myself -- where was the joy? -- I turned up the Christmas carols and poured a glass of eggnog. By God, I was going to be festive. I’d find the perfect tree, decorate it all by myself, show Andrew just what wonders the Christmas spirit could work. Suddenly panicky, I paged through catalogs, shopping for the overwhelming joy Paul had urged on the Philippians, the joy angels sung from the heavens, the joy that was meant to fill the world.

Then I slumped into the sofa and petted the dog, drumming the top of her fuzzy head until she jumped down and sought sanctuary in the backyard.

The phone rang. It was Jo, my best friend since high school. I blurted my woes with a child’s candor. “Why don’t we come get you,” she said, “and we’ll help you find a real tree, and get ours at the same time?”

“Oh, that would be wonderful!” I cried, independence melting like Frosty.

Twenty minutes later, Jo and her husband rang the doorbell. Jolly at our own spontaneity, we drove to the tree stand and chose fat, friendly trees. They helped anchor mine in the tree stand, and we sat around admiring it.

Five minutes after they left, Andrew called. He sounded glad about the tree, and said to please wait till he got home, he wanted to trim it with me.

It was Christmas again. And not because of me.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001