That Old Pagan Prayer

After folding lights around each branch of our Christmas tree, my hands are patched with sap, lifting dog dander and curious little hairs from the furniture. I carefully unwrap all the glass ornaments we acquired when we lived in Germany—painted baubles, VW beetles, frosted toy trains, and breasty Bavarian mädels with their lederhosen-clad partners.

The ornaments were hand picked from the Christkindlmarkt stands that dot medieval courtyards and public gardens along Germany’s shallow, ancient rivers. We defected from the schlocky holiday Ice Capades tradition in favor of the Christmas markets, to which we returned each year with the same blazing wonder, no matter how many hand-made trifles were already nestled in our Christmas box.

My kids know better than to mess with my tree.

“I LOVE CHRISTMAS!” they exclaim with innocent euphoria, jumping in the air and landing like newborn reindeer, feet splayed out in last year’s Christmas socks on the slippery floor.

“Get away from the Christmas Box,” I warn, my patchy hands trembling.

There’s a kid-friendly box in the corner, filled with things I don’t like. The kids get to put that stuff on the bottom somewhere—tier three. It’s a totalitarian Christmas and I have the sappy, iron hand. Even my husband knows better than to put lights on the tree because he never does it right—he’s too good at overlooking details. I know this is part of the reason why he loves me.

Right before our first Christmas in our new American house when my kids were still so young, the ornaments were so alluring, so flipping flashy.

“Stay away from the tree, guys, okay?”

Three seconds later, I heard a bang. Fresh branches tore open and glass shattered. My bewildered 3-year old was surrounded by the felled tree. My daughter hid behind a chair. Only the dog was at peace, chewing something I later determined by olfactory magic to be rodent droppings plucked from the tree.

My cool-headed Midwestern relatives would have laughed, swept, and written letters to Santa. But I’m a New England bleeder. I was heartbroken. My kids were terrified and barefoot. I stashed them on the stairs and pulled the tree up. By some holy marvel, only three ornaments had broken.

The tree is harnessed this year with good reason. My toddler sauntered into my bathroom this morning with a glass Volkswagen from tier one resting in his palm. I was no longer proud of him for learning to use the step stool to wash his hands, and I told him so. After breakfast, he pattered up to the tree with his hands fixed around a screwdriver, his mouth in an elfish smile. Not funny, kiddo.

After everyone goes to bed, I curl up by the tree with my dog—the side of him that doesn’t smell like someone urinating on a campfire—and relish in that moment when I’m not brooding over my latest gift-wrapping fail or mirroring my own strung-out holiday mom by batching up more English toffee than I can reasonably eat. I wait for my tree to engulf me in some kind of glorious rapture, but it just stands there, its twinkling treasures like my family catalogue, drawn out and acknowledged each year. I see a tiny piece of broken glass hiding in the crack between hearth and wall, and I know the worst is over—the tree fell once and we’re all back for another round. I stick my face in the branches and receive the mark of something fresh and green, a pagan grounding ritual—my own little prayer for peace.

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4 thoughts on “That Old Pagan Prayer

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  1. lovely writing! I find christmas ornament hanging to cause a lot of deep breathing. We broke a bunch last year. I try to remind myself I can get more and start new memories but it’s so sad when the pieces shatter.

  2. I have cats, not children. They are just as destructive to Christmas trees. So much so, I can’t put on the ornaments that my father, who has now passed, hand painted. It would break my heart if they were smashed, and smashing ornaments seem to be the greatest joy in life to my cats!

    You bring back memories of me lying underneath our Christmas tree as a kid, just staring up into it, appreciating all the lights and ornaments that my dad, who was just like you…in charge of the tree, lovingly had decorated.

  3. I didn’t even open the Christmas box this year with all my vintage glass ornaments. I DON’T TRUST MY FAMILY NOT TO WRECK THEM. This is my favorite line: “I was no longer proud of him for learning to use the step stool to wash his hands, and I told him so.”

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