In the annals of Hval holiday lore, one story is guaranteed to get trotted out each Christmas. My children call it, “Mom’s Christmas Tree Meltdown.” I call it, “Too Many Children, Not Enough Tree,” but whatever its title, the tale marks an embarrassingly Grinch-like episode in my holiday history. My family finds the story hilarious. I do not.
The exact year of this event is unclear, but I think our sons were 4, 6 and 8 because they all remember it. Thankfully, Sam was not yet born, so he didn’t witness the debacle.
When our boys were little, our tree-trimming tradition was that they decorated the bottom and backside of the tree. In my opinion this strategy was sheer genius. It allowed the boys to participate and hang their nonbreakable ornaments, while I got to create my imagined Martha Stewart-like perfection on top.
I’m not sure what happened that fateful year. Boys on a sugar-fueled high induced by candy canes, frosted Christmas cookies and marshmallow-topped cocoa may have had something to do with it. I’m sure belated bedtimes because of winter break contributed. And it’s possible that I might have taken on a little too much in order to create the Best Christmas Ever for my children.
In fact, it may well be that this Mama was running on too little sleep, not enough caffeine and disastrously high self-expectations. Whatever the cause, the meltdown occurred (though I quibble with the term “meltdown,” it was more of a momentary lapse of sanity).
The boys and I had lugged boxes of ornaments upstairs and each son was poring over his collection of paper snowflakes, toilet paper tube angels and crookedly cut candles. Derek, having untangled the lights and garland, was supposed to photograph this festive holiday tradition. Thankfully, in the chaos that ensued, he forgot, so there is no photographic record of me shrieking red-faced at my startled offspring.
As the boys rushed to find prime spots for their handmade creations, some shoving ensued. Allegations flew.
“Hey! He moved my angel!”
“I did not! It fell down by itself!”
“Don’t touch my snowflake! MOM! HE TOUCHED MY SNOWFLAKE AND NOW IT’S TORN!”
I tried to stay on top of the escalating situation by assigning ornament stations. “Ethan, you decorate the top backside of the tree. Alex you do the middle. Zack you can hang your ornaments of the front bottom branches.”
This didn’t go over well.
“Hey! How come Zack gets to put his in the front?” Alex yelled.
“Yeah,” Ethan said. “Why do ours get stuck in the back?”
“Mine are the beautifulist,” Zack opined.
A barrage of “are not’s” and “are too’s” evolved into more shoving, which morphed into wrestling. The tree tottered and began to sway. Someone yelled, “DOG PILE!”
And that’s when I lost it.
“Stop it! Just stop it!” I screeched. “BACK AWAY FROM THE TREE, NOW!”
At this point the narrative gets muddied. Some say I canceled Christmas and told the children Santa wasn’t coming. Others say I threatened to take every toy in the house and donate them all to the Goodwill. Another version has me informing my offspring that I brought them into to this world, and by golly, I can take them out.
All I know is at the end of my rather impassioned speech a silence fell.
“Um, boys why don’t you go play in your rooms for a bit,” Derek suggested. Three pajama-clad boys shuffled quietly from the room.
“Honey,” began Derek. I glared at him. He too, shuffled silently from the room.
I finished hanging my Victorian ornaments, but the Christmas spirit had left the room along with my family.
Mortified, I hoped we all could forget this episode ever happened. That hope vanished that Sunday as I checked kids into the church nursery. One of my husband’s friends dropped off his daughter. “Hey Cindy,” he said. “Heard you had quite the Christmas meltdown the other night.”
That’s right; my husband had shared the story with a few “close” friends. It couldn’t have spread any faster if I’d written a column about it.
Now, the tale of “Mom’s Christmas Tree Meltdown” has achieved legendary status. I guess I should be thankful “meltdown” is used in the singular tense.
Much has changed in the intervening years. Sam’s arrival meant four boys trimming the tree. The addition of two cats added to the excitement. But now, there are only two boys left at home to decorate the tree.
This year, I surprised them. “Why don’t you guys do the whole tree,” I said.
“Really?” Sam asked. “Even your ornaments?”
“Yep,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Zack asked.
I nodded and they set to work. They didn’t group the angels at the top like I do. And the dated ornaments aren’t in sequence, but you know what? I wasn’t even tempted to rearrange a thing. In fact, I think it just might be the beautifulist tree we’ve ever had.
It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally learned a perfect Christmas isn’t about the synchronicity and symmetry of the ornaments on the tree and it certainly isn’t about the gifts beneath it.
For me, the Best Christmas Ever is about treasuring each moment with the hands that made the ornaments, the arms that wrap me in warm embraces and the hearts that still love me – Christmas Tree Meltdown and all.
This column first appeared in the Spokesman Review, December 26, 2013