A Motown Christmas

          Santa Claus is comin’ to town! Oh, yeah! Santa Claus is comin’ to town! Santa Claus is comin… to town! The voice of a young Michael Jackson rings out through the house, floating on the scent of pine needles that wafts in the air, finding its way into my ears. The familiar opening chorus flips a switch somewhere inside me, and I am immediately filled with anticipation and excitement. Someone’s playing track one of A Motown Christmas on the stereo, and I know what that means: it’s Christmas time. With fast footsteps, I dance out onto the glassed-in porch, singing along with Little Michael and the Jackson Five, old friends who come to visit each December when my dad digs out our all-time favorite holiday album.
          We’d picked up the tree that morning at a lot near the local YMCA. Empty and unused for most of the year, the lot came to life in the weeks leading up to December 25th, when a forest of Christmas trees sprang up practically overnight. I relished the excursion to this impromptu Christmas tree farm, loved wandering through the maze of firs, majestic in bearing, full and rich with the signature smell of the season, towering several feet above me, their tapered tops pointing skyward, awaiting stars and angels.
          Each tree seemed to have its own personality. Some had slight bald patches here and there; some were a bit crooked or leaned in one direction; some were too skinny or too stout; others were rather scraggly or stunted. And of course, there were those of the Charlie Brown variety, the baby trees, trees a little closer to my own size. All had been rounded up and brought here together from some faraway place where Christmas grew out of the ground, most likely the North Pole or Washington State, I reckoned.
          There they sat, waiting for the right family to claim them, to wrap them up in netting and take them home, where it was safe and warm. It was sort of like a Christmas tree orphanage. I wondered what they did with the leftover trees. Did they retire to Canada? Were they sent to the wreath factory? Did they end up in holiday potpourri?
          “Can we get this one, Daddy?” I asked my father, pointing at an imposing-looking candidate that rose at least seven feet into the air.
          “I don’t know if our ceiling is high enough to handle that guy,” my dad replied, sizing up the tree. “Keep looking.”
          “How about this one?” I gestured to another tree.
          “Look, it’s got a big hole in the side. Not enough branches,” my mom pointed out. “Where are we gonna hang all the ornaments? Keep looking.”
          So I kept looking. I went from tree to tree, carefully inspecting for major defects or shortcomings, proposing possible choices to my parents. Eventually, we found the one, the tree that satisfied everyone in the family. She was a beautiful specimen, green and tall and full in all the right places. A burly lumberjack type guy in work boots, gloves, and ear-warmers who worked at the once-a-year Christmas tree lot hoisted our chosen tree up on his shoulder, carried it to the front, sawed off the bottom of its trunk, and sent it through the netting chute. Finishing his work, he addressed us in a voice studded with pine needles, deep and gruff, yet strangely warm: “You folks enjoy your tree, now.” We assured him that we would.
          While my dad was paying, my mom, my brother, and I headed over to the junk pile of trimmings that had been clipped off the trunks of so many previously purchased trees, which the guys who ran the lot let us take home for free. These we would use to deck the halls, to make the garlands and wreaths that we’d put up around the house, as we do every year. We picked the best trimmings and filled our arms with them, then made our way back to the car, which was now adorned with our lovely new tree, netted and tied down to the roof. As we rode home, I looked out the window to see tons of other cars driving around with Christmas tree hats just like ours. It made me smile, thinking of our netted passenger up on the roof above my head, riding along, saying hello to all the other chosen trees on their way home. What other time of the year would you see such a sight?
          Now, father, son, and daughter cluster around the Douglas fir, arranging the tree in the usual ritual of heaving and ho-ing, dragging and lugging, placing and positioning and screwing into the Christmas tree holder as my mom directs the three of us with utmost authority: “One inch to the right… now one-inch to the left… a little bit back… no, the other way… okay, perfect! It’s straight.” The newest member of our Christmas party stands tall and proud, an air of grace emanating from her branches. We rise from our crouched positions, shaking needles from our hair, admiring our work. I run and fetch the watering can, filling it with warm water from the kitchen sink, which I pour up to the brim of her plastic stand and let her drink.
          A trail of thin, green needles shed by our new tree traces a path from the car, up the steps to the front door, and out onto the porch, ending at the foot of her stand. I breathe in through my nose, inhaling the scent of it all. The whole house smells like Christmas. Track five, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” is playing through the stereo. It is time for the preparations to begin. Giant red and green boxes are hauled up from the depths of the basement, emerging from their eleven-month hibernation covered in a light layer of settled dust and cobwebs. Pine needles are hastily swept up from the floor, tops lifted off of stuffy boxes, and ornaments freed from their tissue paper cocoons as the family springs into action, a whirl of motion, color, and song.
          Our voices join the Jackson Five, backing up my little brother, who takes on Michael’s high notes with ease as he drapes Christmas lights around the tree. “Kissing, kissing, Santa Claaaauuuus!” I belt, hanging a halo of golden pears around their partridge. My mom and dad circle the tree, stringing garlands and beads from branch to branch. The decorating is in full swing, and the four of us leave no branch unadorned, my brother and I taking care of the lower ranks, while our parents reach up to cover the upper branches.
          Favorite ornaments we place front and center. We pause and remember where they came from, who gave them to us, when they were made, reminiscing in the cloud of memories that surrounds each one. Here’s the clay reindeer I made in Sunday school. There’s the butterfly Aunt Sara gave me one Christmas. Remember this picture of us at the peace march? And this is the paper stocking you made in Mrs. Crockett’s class. Each ornament has a story, a history that goes with it, and every year we amass more of them, our tree becoming fuller and fuller.
          Ornaments are hooked with care, none of them the same: homemade Rudolphs and Frosties from kindergarten craft projects share close quarters with faded vintage orbs; tiny metal airplanes, blimps, and locomotives brush up against the graceful plumage of delicate birds with glittery beaks. There are popsicle-stick frames holding pictures of my brother and I sitting on Santa’s lap or posing in front of Christmas trees of old. There are Kwanzaa ornaments and angels, a crocheted Cookie Monster and a Mardi Gras-themed motorcycle, a Jackie Robinson tribute ornament and several brown Santas. Hula dancers and Hawaiian Santa Clauses from my grandparents in Honolulu, bottle cap ornaments made at my birthday party, red plastic apples, nutcrackers, candy canes, and drummer boys, brightly colored vegetables, sheer golden bows, and tiny silver bells hang from the branches of our tree.
          After an evening of decorating, my father adds the finishing touch: the tinfoil star that tops off our tree. We turn off the porch lights and flick on the multicolored Christmas lights, plopping down on the couch to take in our day’s work. There we sit, completely worn out, sipping from mugs of steaming hot cocoa and admiring our beautiful tree. She is colorful and delightfully bright, alive and glowing in all her Christmas splendor. Our eclectic collection of ornaments lends her a sassy, endearingly oddball sort of lilt—she is not your average Christmas tree.
          Surrounded by my family, breathing in the scent of fresh pine needles, and resting in the glow of our masterpiece, I realize that there is no place I would rather be than here, with these special people, marveling at this special tree. I feel safe and warm, and I know that I am home. As the last track of A Motown Christmas, Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” comes to a close, I close my eyes, already in a dream. I hope that there will be many more evenings like this, for this is what Christmas is supposed to be. This is what love feels like.

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