how to put up a Christmas tree

  1. Identify and prepare the ideal spot. The best placement for a Christmas tree is in the center of everything but not in the way. You know, in full view for people walking by on the sidewalk but in an intimate corner of your home.
    Ensure that any furniture adjacent to the spot won’t inhibit the tree. If a side table is too big, sell it. Or burn it. Whichever is more dramatic. If your husband is storing gardening supplies on the lower shelf of the table, completely hidden from the rest of the room, let your obsessive need for giving every thing a place and occupying every place with its one thing override the more reasonable and simpler instinct to leave the seed packets and pots where they were.
    Move any plants, and be sure to take a photo of which plants are on which surfaces so you can ensure that all the plants will fit in their new location. Do not rely on your memory for this; you will not be able to get all the plants back to their correct spots again.
    Vacuum the space, and wipe down the baseboard and window sills (you might not be able to do so again until January). Unless you’re tired and/or a little stoned, in which case assess the spot with the question: is it dirty, or just dusty? If it’s just dusty, proceed to Step 2.
  2. Pick a theme to inspire your tree. The theme is Christmas. Don’t overthink it.
  3. Deliver the tree and its decorations. If you’re a suburban family in the 1960s with too many small children, consider placing the tree inside a playpen to avoid a toddler accidentally pulling down the tree as he or she tries to stand. Take a few photos of the tree-in-the-playpen, and tell the story about the tree-in-the-playpen for the next 20 years.
    If you’re a suburban family in the 1980s, make sure the father is committed to procuring a tree that is at least 8” too tall despite the mother’s reminder of the height of the room on his way out the door on his way to the tree lot. Because this will happen every year, hammer nails into the wood paneling on the walls adjacent to the ideal spot to secure a wire that will keep the too-tall tree from tipping. After the mother oversees the unpacking and unwrapping of ornaments, initiate a, well, not an argument but more of a standoff about whether the lights, the ornaments, or the garland should go on first (pro tip: first the lights, then the ornaments, then the garland). Make sure a rickety, 10’ ladder is on hand to place the highest ornaments and to nearly give the mother apoplexy every time the father reaches a little too far around the too-tall tree.
    If you’re an overly generous guy in your 70s and one of your best friends died a few months before, walk into the florist shop, point to a tree in the corner displaying various ornaments and ribbons for sale, purchase it all, and have it delivered — tree, lights, ornaments, ribbons, and anything else they would throw in — to your friend’s widow who was still so heartbroken she didn’t have the energy to bring out all of her family’s ornaments and the memories and pain that came with them. When your son asks why you did this, just smile.
    If you’re mostly retired and invite your unmarried children to spend Christmas with you in Arizona, have the guy who takes care of your house (and charges you too much money) put up a tree and decorate it with generic, all-matching ornaments and giant ribbons that no one likes. Make sure you comment frequently how much you like the tree, even though it makes your adult children sad while looking at a hotel lobby-worthy tree while decades of ornaments were packed away in the attic at home.
    If you’re a postmodern, urban, gay couple, allow the handier of the two (we don’t use the term “butch” anymore) to haul the bougie-ass artificial tree (that cost too much for a freaking tree that you’ll use at most four weeks out of the year but now that you own you can’t imagine another tree) to the ideal spot in the corner of the room where it will overlook the sidewalk and nestle into the space where you two and your dog spend the majority of each night laying next to and variably entwined with each other. Comment frequently about how much you like the tree and how easy it is to assemble. Allow the more neurotic of the two to slowly unpack and unwrap the ornaments you’ve gathered in the short time you’ve been together so that he can gently fold and store the paper towels and reuse them in January. Be sure to take photos from several angles to encourage the delusion that, someday, you’ll be a social media influencer because a famous drag queen will see your post and like it because she appreciates your aesthetic.
  4. Decorate the tree. Lights go on first. Start from the bottom, because if you start at the top you’ll be too generous with the strings and you won’t be able to reach the plug, so you’ll have to have an extension cord dangling from the lower branches or you’ll have to systematically retrieve the lights, keep them from tangling on the floor and from stepping on them with your bare feet because that hurts like a motherfucker, and start over.
    Ornaments go on second. Generic ornaments can be hung by anyone, but ornaments that are affiliated with you should be hung by you. For example, if you received the ornament as a gift, one of many that the childless friend of your mother would make — she made these — and give you each year along with a subscription to Highlights, you have the privilege and the responsibility to make sure its hook is on properly and to find the right branch for it. On the other hand, if you are living with someone who has a box of ornaments from his childhood, placing those ornaments yourself or attempting to art-direct your partner in his placement of them is a sign that your relationship should not last much longer. When your relationship finally ends and your possessions are divided and he moves to another city, be sure to get that box of ornaments to your ex. Otherwise, it will be a source of bitterness for years to come, and your folly may end up in an essay on his blog.
    Garland goes on last, if at all. Tinsel strands will haunt you for the rest of the year. Tinsel garland will look tacky because it clashes with something in the room. Ribbons are bougie. Strings of popcorn, cranberries, and other foodstuffs are nice in the abstract, but they only look right in a Hallmark ad or on the Hallmark Channel. Besides, they’ll just make you hungry every time you look at the tree.
  5. Bask in the glow. It’s best to decorate your tree in late-afternoon so that you can immediately enjoy its warm lights in a darkened room. Accompany your basking with playlists of holiday music, but avoid artists like Wham!, Mariah Carey, and José Feliciano. You will hear them plenty in the coming weeks. Instead, focus on playlists that include music from A Charlie Brown Christmas and Ella Fitzgerald. If a recording of “Ave Maria” comes up, especially if it’s by Harry Connick, Jr., or Beyoncé, immediately switch to a different playlist.
    Instrumental holiday jazz will enhance your emotional engagement with the tree and make you think about your featured solos in your college choir’s holiday concerts, or about one particular song that was part of the show each year that always made you weep. It will also trigger memories of past Christmases with your parents who are now dead for 5 and 6 years, like the time your mother requested a roving quartet to sing “Silent Night” in the original German. And they did. Or the time you volunteered to bring a bûche de Noël for your 8th grade French class holiday party, but you came down with chicken pox and she made the whole thing by herself (though you never said it had to be homemade) and delivered it to the school on the day of the party you were missing, and later that day your French teacher stopped by with a piece of cake for you, the moment that sealed her spot as the favorite among your teachers, and your mom told the story for the next 30 years about how she was so put out because you volunteered her to make a bûche de Noël. Or the Christmas Eve when your cousins didn’t show up and nobody understood why but the next 10 years your mom and aunt didn’t talk to each other until suddenly they did again, the Christmas Eve where you saw your mom cry for the first time and inhaled Chardonnay with her breath when you kissed her on the cheek to say goodnight. Or about the time you were 14 and so depressed and no one knew why or even that you were depressed and you burst into tears and went outside and sat behind a statue, and your older siblings eventually came outside to have a drink and didn’t know you were there and you heard them talking about you and mocking you and calling you a scaredy cat and you feeling so hurt even though it was a comically vapid insult. Or that Christmas watching It’s a Wonderful Life when your mom repeatedly informed everyone around, in varying form but in consistent detail, that Lionel Barrymore was in a wheelchair because he was “full of syphilis.” Or the Christmas Eve two days after your dad died when you looked out on a room full of siblings and niblings and offered a toast and then started giving away your dad’s neckties so everyone could wear one to his funeral a few days later. Or your first Christmas Eve as a married couple in the audience of an irreverent drag show and your sudden desire to make it a tradition and your delight that now you have someone you want to make traditions with. Or the next year, nine months into quarantine and when you found yourself warm and safe and happy in the glow of a beautiful, if bougie and overpriced, tree, husband on one side and rat terrier on the other.

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Bill Hulseman

Bill Hulseman

Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator | billhulseman.com