Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree Disaster
I knew I’d been accepted as a Coughlin the year my mother-in-law asked me to help decorate their Christmas tree.
Nonna has a very specific way of doing everything in her home, so it is a big deal when she invites someone to participate in routine tasks.
But here was I, the most recent in-law in this family of eight, being included in a family tradition, one that is perhaps my favorite part of the season.
The year I was 7, I decorated by candlelight while dancing to holiday music on the radio. When Brenda Lee belted out “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” I couldn’t resist singing along, using whatever was nearby as a microphone.
I was leaning into a flickering Santa candle when it happened. My long hair swayed into the flame, instantly igniting. A recent fire safety lesson in stop-drop-and-roll came in handy that night.
Strangely, when I went into the kitchen to tell my parents what had happened, they were nonplussed.
“I thought I smelled something burning,” my mom said, turning back to baking. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the youngest of five children.
Many years later, I got to share the joy of tree trimming with my husband. The fireplace crackled, Harry Connick Jr. set the tone with “The Happy Elf,” and Patrick served me eggnog, my favorite holiday drink.
The thing is — and this is critical — I come from a tee-totaling Southern Baptist family. I’ve since learned to appreciate adult beverages, but I’m still rather uninformed on mixed drinks.
So on the eve of our Christmas tree decorating, I slurped down a few glasses of eggnog in a very short time — without remembering that eggnog is traditionally made with rum.
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to see the tree again. I bounded out of bed and skipped to the living room. But wait, where was the picture-perfect tree from last night? Almost all the ornaments were crammed into a 1-foot-square space.
“What did you do to the tree?” I shouted to my sleeping husband. He trudged into the living room, rubbing his eyes. When he saw the subject of my dismay, he roared with laughter.
“I didn’t do that,” he said, laughing so hard I could barely understand him. “Eggnog did that.”
Thoughts of past tree-decorating disasters were far from my mind the next year as we drove to my in-laws to do their tree.
Nonna thanked us for helping, then settled herself in a chair, propping her feet on an ottoman and sipping a winter beverage.
“I’m going to rest my knees, kids,” she said. “You just decorate however you want.”
I was delighted when I opened the first box and saw the vintage ornaments, an accumulation of 50 years of marriage. I carefully lifted out a sparkling pink sphere and placed it on a high branch of the artificial tree that has stood in the Coughlin home for two decades.
“Oh, no, honey,” Nonna said. “That ornament goes on the back side, about three feet from the floor.”
I enthusiastically moved the ornament to please her and hung another ornament, a miniature of the Little Drummer Boy.
“Honey, move that one up a little. It should go on the fourth branch from the top on the left side,” Nonna instructed, adding fondly, “Billy always looks for it there.”
Wow, I must have started with her favorite ornaments, I thought, moving to another box to play it safe. I chose an ordinary red ball and hung it.
“Honey, can you put that a little lower and move it to the right?” Nonna requested.
And so continued the tree trimming. We hung 50 years’ accumulation of ornaments — for three hours.
About halfway through, I stepped outside into the knee-high snow without a coat and stood staring into swirling flakes. Patrick came out after a few minutes. “Aren’t you freezing?” he asked, rubbing my hands to warm them.
“No, I’m not. I’m quite hot, in fact.”
A smart and sensitive husband, Patrick made a hasty retreat, inviting me to come in when I was ready. Eventually, I summoned up a cheerful spirit — OK, so it was my best imitation of a cheerful spirit — and reported for duty in the living room.
“Where would you like me to hang this ornament?” I asked Nonna sweetly.
This Christmas, I’m hoping for an incident-free tree-trimming. No fires, no eggnog and, please, please, please, no input on how to decorate. May yours be equally uneventful.
Contact freelance writer Melanie Coughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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