It was my favorite time of the season, the pilgrimage that marked the start of Christmas. Each December, when the night air was cold and sharp, my dad, brother, and I would bundle up in our coats and hats and set off for St. Rose of Lima church. It was less than a mile but the journey felt monumental. We crossed neighborhood borders, often trekking through a crunchy layer of snow, past the gated field where the church stood just back from Clopper Road. The lights in the yard would be strung, illuminating rows of Christmas trees. They were the prize we sought.
I always loved browsing through that artificial forest, looking for the perfect tree that would adorn the living room for the next month. It was an art; the right tree wasn’t simply chosen, it called out to you. Once we had agreed on the right one, the real fun began. We carried it back home.
I can’t remember a single year during the reign of this tradition that something didn’t go wrong. If it wasn’t the year we all slipped on an icy hill and went tumbling, tree loose like a wild, green bobsled, then it was the all too familiar moment we got home and realized the base didn’t fit the stand. My dad would be out front in the darkness, my brother or I holding a flashlight, while he cursed and hacked away with the hand saw. Once up, the tree was nearly always a little crooked. Through it all, my mom seemed to be the only one who was aware of history repeating itself. Maybe we were too; maybe we let it be because it wouldn’t be Christmas without the folly.
We weren’t a family to hang generic white lights and silver balls. Each ornament had meaning, from the hand-sewn Wizard of Oz characters my mom had made, to the ones made in Sunday School over the years. We even hung the Washington Redskins burgundy ball as a shout to our DC ties, albeit in the back of the tree. There was always music and chatter as I would frequently stand back to make sure the ornaments were equally distributed. Then we would sit with the lights off, tree lit, to enjoy the finished product. The older I got, the more I appreciated this moment.
As Christmas again approaches, and I’m faced with spending it alone at home here in Dublin, I can’t help but feeling a little sad. I had originally planned to go to my friend Hannah’s house in England to celebrate the holidays with her, her boyfriend, and her family, but with my work schedule and limited time off, I deemed the plan infeasible and wrote it off. I thought about going back to the hostel in Strandhill where I spent such an amazing Christmas last year with strangers turned friends, but it has become clear that these memories can’t be recreated. Trying to do so would only end in disappointment.
My Christmases have become increasingly unorthodox each year so this one will fit the mold, as much as one can with a mold that’s ever-changing. So rather than looking back sadly, wishing for what is passed, I’ve tried to focus on creating a new tradition, if only for one year.