My husband and I have been together for 5 months shy of 20 years. That’s 19 Christmases, y’all. We have somehow survived an unending brutal recession, a violently popped real estate bubble, 6 tropical storms, 3 tornadoes and a half dozen nasty cases of the stomach bug. We have remained strong through 7 moves, 43 tween sleepovers, lost teeth, lost keys, flat tires, burnt spaghetti pans, Amex bills, ER visits, and countless steely bouts of individual self-esteem.
We have climbed mountains, hiked through treacherous forests, boiled our own drinking water from a rushing stream. We have slept on trains in Spain, flown in teeny tiny seats on prop planes across rugged terrain, birthed two children (well, that would be me), helped decode math homework and countless computer crashes together without a whole lot of screams.
But if we try to wrap a few lights around a Douglas fir right before Christmas, we don’t speak for a week.
What is it about this treasured and time-honored holiday family tradition that causes trees to be tossed from windows, pillows to be thrown on couches, doors to be slammed and mutiny to be charged from beside the stocking draped mantel with care? Isn’t it, at its very Christmassy pine scented core, supposed to be all about family, fun and togetherness?
I guess like practically every other invention known to man, we have Thomas Edison to thank for that. I know, I know. He was just trying to be helpful when he strung a few miniature glass bulbs together and hung them into his Menlo Park Laboratory in 1880. After all, before people just stuck candles into dried out trees and stood by singing carols while holding a bucket of water. As GE would later advertise when they bought the patent in 1903, these glass balls of lighted wonder would cause “No Danger, Smoke, or Smell.” No, that’s what the turkey fryer, Aunt Pam’s menthol Pall Malls and a dog that eats the relish tray are for.
But we actually have one of Edison’s associates, one Edward H. Johnson, to blame when he placed 80 hand-wired bulbs of red, blue and white incandescent lights around his family tree on 5th Avenue the evening of December 22, 1882. Now, I am pretty sure Mrs. Johnson was smiling with pride from the fireplace, a glass of Sherry in her hand. And of course, she would be. It’s what the man did for a living, for goodness sake. But take this product to the masses – well, actually the rich masses seeing as they cost $12 – roughly $300 today – and what do you expect to happen? After dumping your savings on a few strings of colored bulbs, who has the cash to hire an electrician to install them for you, as advertised? Coupled with the fact that men think they can do anything handy using no instructions or reading glasses while women assume they can get it done by simply offering (might I say, solid) advice repeatedly, over and over again, from the couch, so you can see why it was destined to create the perfect storm of marital discourse and disharmony.
The thing is though, after all these years –123 to be exact – the darn little twisted strings of frustration and illumination have become the centerpiece, the main fiber of our fabric, the icing on the cake of our most festive of family traditions all balled into one no matter the fury and ultimate aggravation. And I don’t know about y’all, but with all of the choices out there now –LED, white/rainbow, blinking, twinkling, frosted or peppered – the annual decorating of the Christmas tree is more stressful now than ever.
But it seems that even after lugging in the ladder, finding the bad bulb, driving to five stores to find one last lonely string, untangling, detangling, wrapping, wrestling, draping and arguing, it’s all worth it in the end. And where else would all of the good stories, the sense of pride and accomplishment, the feeling of family togetherness come from if it weren’t for the annual lighting of the family Christmas tree?
I wonder if Edison and his trusty associate Johnson knew what they were creating when they strung a bunch of glass lights together. Did they know they were threading not just bulbs but a feeling that would last and grow for over 100 years – a feeling that no matter the sweat, the curses and the tears, anything is possible? All you need is coils, copper wiring, a few extension cords, a little added duct tape (?) and a heaping helping of the pure, simple magic that is Christmas.
See you around the boughs of holly . . . and have a Merry Christmastime this year.