When I was a kid, we reused just about everything that came into our lives. Decades later, I’m still struggling to unpack which instances of reuse to file under “hippie shit” and which under “poverty shit.”
Old Nancy’s Honey Yogurt containers were pressed into service as Tupperware. Mason jars were drinking vessels as well as canning utensils, and I still can’t get on board with the hipster restaurants using them as glassware. Even our Christmas tree was alive and reusable, some fir- or pine-adjacent species that my dad had taken a liking to, carefully warmed on the porch, allowed in the house for a scant week or two and then re-acclimated to the freezing high desert temperatures outside. Each tree would serve a three- or four-year tour of duty and then find a permanent place in our yard, a few strands of tinsel still clinging to its branches until the birds picked them off in the spring. The Black Pine is the one I remember best, with three-inch needles constantly ready to stab a wrist or forearm.
The one exception to our “reduce, reuse, recycle” standard was tinsel.
Christmas at our house really began when my dad brought home the tinsel, signifying that we’d completed the ritual Warming of the Tree and it was safe to bring it inside without “shocking the rootball” (I was never clear on whether that would kill the tree or just make it think that it was spring already, but it was always said in the direst of tones). Once my parents had wrapped the pot in a garbage bag and wrestled the living tree through the door, we’d leave my dad alone to do the lights and tinsel. Only then could my mom put on the Narada Nutcracker and open the boxes of ornaments and hand them to me or my sister to put on the tree.
But before the ornaments, before the music, my dad worked alone in silence with the tree.
Each tree had an individual personality: with some trees he could lay out the lights on top of the branches with a single wrap here and there, like making a dreamcatcher of electrical glitter. On others he had to wrap each individual branch, out and back, with the wires adjusted to lie in even crosses. We had exactly three strings of Christmas lights and they had to be evenly distributed throughout the entire tree, so there was an element of guesswork and estimation to the whole process that sometimes resulted in having to redo the entire thing several times before it was declared “just right.”
One year my dad passed me the end of a string of Christmas lights, plugged in already so that he could check each bulb as he put the lights on the tree. “You can do this job from now on, Mae-mae,” he said. That first year it took me forever. I had to restart twice, and when I was done my wrists were scratched and my fingers were sticky with pitch.
When the lights were finally hung, it was time to begin adding tinsel. My dad wanted nothing to do with the tidy tinsel garlands that decorated trees in picture-books and department stores (or so I’d heard; our little valley would not get a department store until the mall opened “in town” and my hometown still doesn’t have an actual stoplight). No, he bought “real tinsel” – the kind that comes in a flat pack, individual strands draped over and stapled to a cardboard header, dangling like a heavy exotic wig. I loved to run my hands over the ribboned curtain of it, to sort strands with my fingers and watch them fall. To marvel at the coolness of it, the weight, the texture, but most of all the newness. Something with no history and no future, no weight of strangers’ holidays sewn into it.
My dad would pick the staples out of the card the tinsel came on and drape a small handful of strands over his wrist. Then he’d separate out one strand at a time and lay it carefully over a branch, between the needle buds. He worked neither slowly nor quickly, but with a kind of steady, obsessive precision, and when he was done the tree would be covered in an even layer of glittering “icicles” that swayed and shivered in the backblast from our central heating vents.
As far as I was concerned, the tree was perfect right then, before the ornaments went on. Our ornaments were old and cheap and weird: glass balls found at Goodwill, the ugly gnomes that my mom had taken in part-pay for work one year and that my sister and I despised. One of the gnomes was pulling his pants down, and we always hung that one in the back; but my mother insisted we hang it anyway. Some people love their weird family ornaments, the wool-wrapped sticks of the God’s Eye you tried to make when you were six, the broken-legged reindeer. I hated them, but I especially hated those damn gnomes.
“Is the tree ready for us to start decorating?” my mom would ask when the tinsel-card was empty.
“We’re done with it,” my dad would reply.