In search of a family tradition
By Wiley Cash
Our oldest daughter was only 2 months old the first time we made her cry while showing her the importance of family traditions. It was a chilly late afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving in 2014, and my wife and I had already unloaded all the Christmas decorations from the attic while our daughter napped. Now we sat on the living room sofa in nervous silence, watching the daylight slip away and wondering if we should dare commit the cardinal sin of waking a sleeping baby. After all, we were going to get our first Christmas tree as a family, and we needed high-quality photos to prove that a tradition had been forged.
I cannot quite remember what my wife or I were wearing, but in my memory it seems that we were decked out in our winter, Christmas tree-searching finery. I picture myself in a red flannel shirt with one of those leather hats with the flaps folded down over my ears, and I imagine my wife was wearing a cream-colored sweater with a beret that matched, but these are just bits of speculation. I do, however, remember our daughter’s outfit, can still picture it where it was laid out on the coffee table: a white onesie with a Cubist-inspired Christmas tree on it and, of course, a tiny red Santa hat that we planned to perch perfectly atop her bald baby head.
At the first sound of her stirring, we flew upstairs. We slipped her out of her non-holiday clothes and into the Christmas tree onesie with ease, but we hit a serious speed bump once the Santa hat was installed on her head. She shook it loose, and when we put it back on she actually reached for it and removed it. My wife did her best to distract our daughter while I fumbled with the tripod so we could snap a few casual photos in front of our garlanded, lit fireplace before setting out in search of a tree. By the time the camera was ready, our daughter was in tears. The photos show our strained faces, her tear-stained cheeks and a tiny Santa hat that is alternately atop her head, in midair as it falls toward the floor, then absent altogether.
With dusk coming on and our normally relaxed newborn newly fitful, we made a dash for the closest Christmas tree lot we could find, which, unfortunately, sat on a narrow strip of grass between the fire department and a busy road.
The sun had sunk below the tree line and an icy chill had settled over the late afternoon by the time we arrived at the lot. We immediately set about the task of having and photographing our tree-hunting experience instead of actually hunting for a tree. Our daughter showed no more interest in wearing her Santa hat than she had shown at home, and the cars and trucks that sped past us only a few feet away did not assist us in our attempts to keep the hat on her head. However, what the speeding automobiles did do well was force the cold air deep into our eyes so that tears streamed down all our faces.
After we had taken all the pictures the three of us could stand — none of which actually featured the three of us together — we realized that we had not yet spent a moment considering any trees on the lot. We made a hasty selection, tied a tree to the top of the car and headed home.
We got the tree inside and set it up in its stand, but we did not decorate it that evening. We did not decorate it the next day either. Perhaps we were not yet in the Christmas spirit. Perhaps we were busy decorating other parts of the house. But what is most likely is that we were silently pouting due to the fact that the experience of getting the tree had not been captured in a way that felt sufficient to memorialize it as a family tradition.
A few nights later, after an early dinner, I found my wife going through a box of ornaments. Many of them had been given to us while we were dating or during the first year of our marriage. We considered each ornament, talked about the people who had given it to us, recalled the first Christmas tree we decorated as a couple when we were living in the northern panhandle of West Virginia in 2009.
That year, my wife had come home late from work, and snow had begun to fall. It was early December, and there was already a thin layer of snow on the ground. Both of us being Southerners, we were excited by the idea of getting a Christmas tree in the falling snow. Although we had not yet unpacked ornaments or even considered decorating our tiny apartment, we set out on the dark, snow-covered roads that wound through our mountain village and headed for the small town of Wellsburg, where it sits on the banks of the Ohio River.
The only Christmas trees we could find were in the parking lot of a Rite-Aid, and there were only a few trees available. But we took our time, imagining each one crammed inside our living room in front of the window that looked out on the main street of the village. We talked about how high our ceiling was, what kind of tree topper we would buy, which ornaments would hang where. The snow kept falling, and I have vivid memories of seeing flakes caught in my wife’s dark hair. I can remember reaching out and touching the pine boughs on the various trees where the soft snow had settled.
We finally agreed on a short, fat tree, and as we paid for it and loaded it onto the roof of our car we discovered that the owner of the tree lot knew some friends of ours. We had only recently moved to West Virginia, and we were thrilled by the knowledge that we had just met someone who was friends with our friends. We felt like we belonged in this distant place that was so far from our lives back home in North Carolina. We were forging a life together.
Five years later we stood in a new house with a new baby and looked through old ornaments. I opened a few boxes of lights and began snaking them through the tree. We made a fire and hung our old ornaments one by one. We were so caught up in our decorating that we did not notice that our daughter had fallen asleep on the little pillow where she often rested, the light from the fire and the light from the tree causing her soft baby face to glow. I looked at my wife. She reached for her cellphone, and I reached for our daughter’s tiny Santa hat and, as carefully as I could, placed it on her head. We knelt behind her, gazed down upon her with all the love one could ever feel for such a sweet, innocent thing. And then we looked up at my wife’s cellphone and snapped a selfie.
That night, I knew that we were a family with a Christmas tradition. But I also knew something else: We always had been.
Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His new novel The Last Ballad is available wherever books are sold.