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Our Xmas tree evolved and developed over years and years. It was a masterpiece of chaos and proof of the existence of beauty through excess. Blinking lights, colored lights and three different colors of garland at least: silver and gold, red and possibly green. I think we even found blue one year.

It started with the standard assortment of nondescript bells and uninteresting balls in metallic pastel hues. But it grew with a box of this and a set of that from whatever fundraiser we brought home to grandma. It expanded with gifts from the neighbors when they couldn't think of anything else to give. It grew with a random selection of the things we made in our grade school classes over time. It collected all the milestones of the ages as we grew.

We stopped putting up the tree when my grandmother gave up her little house down the street and moved into an apartment in a retirement community. I don't think my father ever forgave her for moving on him so unexpectedly, and so the family was never quite the same. There wasn't space for a tree in the two small rooms, so all the ornaments flew off to places unknown - probably parts of our basement and to the homes of friends of friends, but I never tracked any of them down.

We started opening gifts under the three-tiered unit of shelves where my grandmother placed her ceramic figurines and cards. I think we ever lined the shelves with tinsel one year, in a sad little salute to the things we used to have.

This year I've spent most of the holiday season with a different family, one I'm living with somewhat randomly because the lady who owns the house needs the rent. We put up the tree together, but it wasn't quite the same. Her tree is beautiful, mind you. It glows with bright white lights and long white strings of beads. It's alive with translucent snowflakes, clear glass balls with intricate frosted designs, and bells in blue and silver.

But it doesn't feel right. Her tree is carefully crafted through her own time and pains to be a reflection of delicate care and beauty. Nothing is out of place. Everything matches itself and the room around it. The blue of the balls is the same as the blue of the carpet. It makes a lot more sense than ours ever used to.

But I think ours was a reflection of our family. Almost every piece had a story. We knew exactly where it came from and nothing matched anything else and the lights were bizarre with half blinking, half steady. The star at the top was a completely different color from anything else. There were creatures that almost made you think the branches could walk away, with distorted elves and wooden angels in tiny glass bells, and cats serenading and fairy tale characters. There was that small felt wreath I made when I was five. Ours had a story. Ours was us. Fractured and disjointed and nonsensical in an almost lyrical way. Chaotic in every possible way that my new housemate's tree makes peace of the room and settles the heart with dreams of nostalgia for all of the things we never had.

But our tree, as stupid as it seemed -- our tree made me think we were even a family, disparate elements come together for eclectic reasons that don't always dare to make sense.

The memory of it almost makes me want to go home.

With the small exception of the fact that I know that it's already gone.
Our family Christmas tree is similar, although probably folkier; the decorations are partly handmade spraypainted clay shapes made by me and my brother at very young ages, partly glittery glass baubles and so forth, bought becasue we didn't seem to have quite enough this year, and partly a variety of strange little ornaments: stuffed cloth bells, raffia angels, little painted wooden people and so on.

However, the best thing about the tree is that, having got it to the point where we can barely see the organic part and the thing seems to be mainly an assemblage of decorations, we then cover it in unstable, tilting, real candles.

it's absolutely beatiful - with the lights out it glitters in much softer, warmer way than any I've ever seen with coloured lights on. And so far, somehow, it has never caught fire.

It happens to most couples. You think living with eachother will be simple and perfect- you like the same books, the same music, even the same art.

Then comes Christmas, and time to buy and decorate a tree. The shock and horror of finding out that this person you have loved and lived with is one of the unwashed heathens who prefer a Noble fir over a Douglas fir (or vice versa, I suppose) is almost unbearable. Even after some acceptable compromise, such as alternating years, has been reached, the issue of decorating the tree remains.

Such doctrinare issues as religion, politics, and prefered operating system can pale before those of tree selection and decoration because not only are they rooted in deep and meaningful childhood memories, but they are completely detached from any provable statements about the outside world and yet are firmly at the core of the issue of how a thing that will share your living room for several weeks shall look.

I am deeply comitted to traditional, representational, even somewhat folksy ornaments, while my wife tends to prefer the more abstract spheres and spun glass and wire. But here is where we've found compromise and even the moral of the story- she makes the abstract wire ornaments herself and the glass spheres are hand-me-downs in her family. Even in disagreement over style, the reasons we have for valuing the things we value are very compatible. If you can see the reasons behind someone's philosophy of Christmas tree decorating, you can learn more about the person. And in marriage, isn't that a goal in itself?

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