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A chilly wind picked up strength and swayed me back and forth as I clung to a branch near the top of my tree. I felt like a sailor in a crow’s nest rounding Cape Horn.
It was a couple of weekends before Christmas, and just as I have done every year since late in the last century, I was about to string hundreds of lights through the boughs of the huge, ancient pine that stands in front of my family’s house.
My strategy has always been to climb as high as possible into the tree, then work my way down, and so I strained further upward, swaddled in the many strings of lights I was carrying. A sharp twig poked me in the scalp and motes of dead bark swirled into my eye.
“There are definitely poems lovelier than you,” I snarled at my tree. As if in reply, a medium-sized branch snapped off in my hand.
“Are they all so brittle this year?” I wondered, looking down at the one I was standing on. The tree’s limbs – like my own – are not as strong or supple as they once were. Each year, my ascent wears both of us down a bit more. As I reached for a higher branch, an old shoulder injury awakened and groaned in protest.
Our pine tree, never beautiful to begin with, has begun to look awful in the past few years. Old age plus decades of weathering have caused many of its branches to wither and die. Its needles are now sparse. If Charlie Brown’s tree had survived to senility, ours is what it would look like. We should have got rid of it and planted a newer, healthier tree, but history and nostalgia have kept a firm grip on us.
My daughter used to climb into this tree as a child to read her Enid Blyton novels. She is now a postgraduate student in English at McGill University. My grown son’s second-floor bedroom window looks out into the branches, and the glow from the Christmas lights has shone inward every December since he was a preschooler.
The tree and its lights are part of the weft of the family fabric.
When we first moved in to our house in the mid-1990s, someone – probably me – decided that the giant tree in the front yard would make an excellent showplace for Christmas lights. All you have to do, that same someone said, is climb up to the top and string them on the branches all the way down.
Like putting a man on the moon and returning him safely, it was a project that was easy in the conception, somewhat more complex in the execution. At the time, I hadn’t known that I was sentencing myself to annual floggings by angry branches and impalings by twigs as I attempted to breach the heights.
It’s possible that in my naiveté I dreamed that some day my children would take over the task, when they became old enough and I became too old. That time has come and gone, and the mantle was somehow never passed, so the project has remained mine. These days, it is coupled with my sense of duty to the scraggly tree itself, which I have begun to think of the way one would of an ancient relative: normally unappealing to look at, but marginally improved by adornments at Christmas.
And so I climbed, weaving and squeezing myself through the branches. Strings of lights, which I had meticulously disentangled on the ground, were entwining themselves again like mating eels, governed by the Law of Christmas Light Entropy. With one frozen hand wrapped around the tree trunk, I used the other to try to unravel them, assisted by my teeth. When you are up a tree, you will use any available resource to help you stay there.
Why not, many have asked me, simply leave the lights up there all year round?
I respond that to me there is something uncompromisingly seasonal about Christmas lights. They would look out of place whipping and snapping around in a July thunderstorm. What’s more, I like the way the light-stringing ritual bookends my holiday season. As soon as they go up, I can start humming carols, and when they come down, I can forget about the Christmas past and start looking forward to the new year.
Like so many other liturgies of our life, this task has become ingrained as it is, and it does not invite change. And, like life, it does not become any easier over time, but one may become more accepting of how difficult it is.
Gradually, I worked my way down the tree. Finally, the strings of lights were woven into the branches and every light had a place by the time I set foot on earth again.
Later, when the day had turned to evening, I plugged the joined light strings into an extension cord and walked into the street to see the results. The lights curled upward around the pine boughs like wisps of coloured smoke, reaching into the deep-blue sky above and casting a warm glow on the ground below.
My tree looked beautiful. Whatever majesty it had once possessed was restored, my task was complete, and our holiday season was heralded for another year.
Christopher Cameron lives in Toronto.