Christmas trees: an expat story

Fullerton, California, 1988: 

December means Advent calendars and Christmas decorations. December means a tree. We pile into the gray Volvo station wagon. Dad drives.

The sun has already set when we get to the tree farm. Strings of bulbs light the acres of pine trees. Shadows dance around the paths. I am sure at any moment something is going to burst out from behind the branches of that tree. Or that one. But nothing does. I get to choose which tree to bring home. It's very important to choose the right one. It will grace our living room for many weeks ("There are 12 days of Christmas," my mom says to justify why we don't take it down until the middle of January). 

I examine each tree. Is it high enough? Are the branches full enough? Is it just wide enough to fit all our ornaments, but not so wide that it looks squat. Around each tree I go. Once. Twice. My brother trails behind me shouting opinions in his toddler voice. Finally I find the right one. Someone in an orange vest comes over with an ax, and down it goes. 

We drive home with the tree tied to the top of the car. My brother falls asleep on the way. Tomorrow we'll pull out the ornaments and lights.

Lagos, Nigeria: 1993

Mom bought a plastic tree when we left the States. Dad pulls it out of the box. It doesn't look right or smell right. It doesn't feel right. We don't put it in water. Pine needles aren't falling to the ground. 

"Plastic trees are so boring," I say.

"Do you see any pine trees around here?" my Dad asks.

I shake my head. 

"So we have to make do."

I nod.

"At least I don't have to clean up anything," Mom says.

Dad gets the tree up and pulls down each layer of branches so it look like an actual tree. He strings the lights.

"God, this is such a pain. Maybe I'll just keep the lights on when I put it back in the box."

Mom opens the boxes of ornaments and we decorate. Dad plugs in the lights. They blink white. On and off. On and off.

It almost looks like home. Almost. 

Asha SundararamanComment