My dad ascended the rickety ladder, thus launching our family’s annual quest to decorate our Christmas tree. Ours was no snowy trek to an idyllic woodland. Instead it was an ascension up the world’s oldest wooden ladder to a high and bafflingly small closet where our fake tree waited for its brief—yet emphatic—holiday glory.
The ladder creaked as my dad passed the boxes down to my mom. Wind from nearby Lake Michigan rattled the storm windows. The doorbell chimed, heralding the arrival of my Aunt Elizabeth; snowflakes sprinkled on her shoulders and nose nipped red from the cold. Once again we were ready to prove that we were up to the task of bringing light into the house. Or, we would we be buried under our expectations of holiday magic.
I slid across the hardwood floor in my stockinged feet until I ran into Margaret, my pre-teen sister. “Stop it, pest.” she said. I stuck my tongue out at her and slid away. As an eight-years-old kid, not much deterred me from joy. Soon we trundled down to the family room carrying ornament boxes and trays of cookies. The family room was half underground. I shivered.
“Dad it’s freezing in here,” I said.
“Put on a sweater.”
I spent most of my childhood either putting on a sweater or huddling under a blanket. Having a dad that had lived through the depression and served in the Navy in World War II meant a certain level of frugality with creature comforts. He lavished money on education and cultural exposure; heat, not so much.
Mom lit her holiday beeswax candles and the adults set to work assembling the tree. Back in the 1970s fake trees were pale comparisons to the masterpieces sold now. It was more a spindly idea of a tree; it was up to the lights, ornaments, and lashings of tinsel to do the job. I ran up three flights, unearthed a sweater from my rat’s nest kid-closet, and ran back down to find the tree half-assembled. “Oh my,” my Aunt said, “these lower branches are really drooping more this year.” Drooping, to her, meant something slightly different than what I saw; three lower branches laid prostrate on the floor.
“I have the thread!” my mom said, whipping it out of her pocket.My aunt gamely crawled under the tree and began tying up the flagging branches. “How many PhD chemists,” my dad said as he crunched into a chocolate chip cookie, “does it take to put up a Christmas tree?” “Well between us,” my aunt said as she swatted an errant limb from her face, “we’ve got three!”
I flopped down between boxes of ornaments and pulled my sweater over my fingers. “You’re going to stretch that out,” my sister said. I rolled my eyes at her. From his spot on the couch my dad alternated between untangling the twinkle lights and giving “helpful suggestions” to my aunt, who by this time seemed to only be a pair of legs sticking out from under the tree.
My sister brought the tray of cookies to me. “Want one, braceface?” she said. I took a chocolate chip but not without giving her my pinchy-face look.
“Girls,” my mom said, without even turning from her position of handing thread to my aunt. “Here,” my sister said, as she handed me a box of ornament hooks that looked like they had been fused by a malevolent force. Together we made our way through a plate of cookies as we untangled the hooks.
There we were, all in our family roles. Responsible father; peacekeeping mother; helpful aunt, wise older sister; rambunctious kid. The traditions we loved carried us forward. My aunt and mom strung the lights on the tree until it was deemed to be satisfactorily twinkly. One thing about having three PhD scientists putting up a tree is that no detail was overlooked.
As we put ornaments on the tree there was the requisite do you remember this one! And the replies, oh yes, the Santa in the Sailboat, Grandma Ruby’s favorite! I started humming Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime; the annoyingly repetitive pop song that had more synthesizer than was necessary. Hanging a trumpet ornament on a high branch required me to stand on one tip toe, which promptly sent me toppling against Margaret.
“Pest,” she said, “Stop singing that song. You should have used both feet. It’s more effective that way.”
“Know-it-all,” I said.
I defaulted to my signature move and stuck my tongue out at her. “Witty retort,” she said. I opened my mouth to whine mom! “Girls.” My mom quickly turned towards us and held up two glass ornaments. “Remember these?” “Our ornaments,” we said in unison.
Squabble forgotten, we gently took them and held them up to the light. The honeyed scent of the beeswax candles filled the room. Winter wind whistled against the house. The delicate glass orbs held golden figures; one an angel in lavish robes, the other held a dove swaying inside its private universe. Light from the tree glimmered on the glass and caught in their small ruby-red accents.
“Hang them high,” mom said, “where we will see them sparkle.” I circled the tree looking for an empty space. “There’s a spot here,” my sister said. She stood behind me and steadied my shoulders as I reached up. The angel spun and shimmered. We drizzled the tree with silver tinsel and took to the couches to admire our handiwork.
The room lights were dimmed, candlelight glowed, and the wind—as if wanting to join the merry party—rattled the cellar door. We passed the cookie tray and I chewed the sweet warmth of cinnamon and heat of ginger from a Molasses Spice Cookie. The tree, that decades old spindly plastic affair with more bare spots than needles now seemed as lush and radiant as Father Christmas himself. The black thread, now forgotten, held to her task of shoring up our tradition.
“Well,” my dad said, brushing cookie crumbs off his shirt, “we made another good job of it this year.” My aunt winked at me and I snuggled against my mom. My sister gave me a little nod and I passed her another cookie. “Yes,” my mom said, kissing the top of my head, “we certainly did it again.”
I eventually grew out of my brace-face years but I never grew out of my love of Christmas trees. My sister and I are friends and allies. My parents, who are approaching their sixtieth wedding anniversary this December, still host a Christmas brunch and tree trimming each year.
Over the years I have always kept a tree—sometimes two or three—and feel the happy weight of childhood memories. During the holidays I hear a lot about keeping the magic of Christmas alive throughout the year. Like the black thread that gave support to our tree, Yoga has become a way to weave this magic into my life. For me, the tradition of sadhana, daily practice, has become an important ritual. There, I can tie up my broken bits, forgive petty irritations with others, and nurture the higher aspects of myself so I can shine.
At the end of each practice I chant with the blessings of my Integral Yoga elders, “Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu—May the entire universe be filled with peace and joy, love and light.”
I hope that in my small way, I am bringing the best of Christmas into each day. The spindly tree has long been replaced, but the ties of tradition allow the light radiate and shine.
About the Author:
Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga® teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She is currently finishing final revisions to her memoir. The story is about how she repurposed her wedding vows into a yogic vow to live love as a way of life—a pilgrimage that endured even as her husband and childhood sweetheart battled end-stage alcoholism. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: https://www.gitabrown.com