Oh Christmas Tree!
Last month went by in a bit of a whirl for me. Chris came back from his trip to see his brother in October and a few days later told me that he thought it would be a good idea for me to head to Canada for two weeks to help our board transition some things that needed to be taken care of. I quickly threw plans in place and a couple weeks later was jetting off. The bonus was that I got to stay with my parents and have a good visit with them and my brother, and saw a bunch of friends at a fundraiser that we did.
The other fun thing is that it was the first time I had been in North America in the pre-Christmas season in several years and it was fun to be in cool weather and be able to wander through stores and see everything decked out. I LOVE Christmas and look forward to putting up my decorations every year. After hours spent wandering through stores with my mom I was excited to return to Haiti at the beginning of the week of American Thanksgiving and get to decorating the house.
Last year we were in the last few weeks of building and getting ready to move, so I didn’t decorate. Instead I worked 12 hour days, came home and showered off layers of grime and fell into bed exhausted. We moved on December 14th, I did a fast trip to Port the next day, on the 16th I threw up my decorations, and then we had our staff Christmas party the day after that. Then I collapsed because I was just plain worn out. It was like running a marathon and then trying to “do” Christmas. Everything was new and I wasn’t sure how to use my decorations in the new space. We had moved from an apartment that was about 900 square feet, to a two storey house that was about 2200 square feet. I did what I could with the time available, but I knew coming into this Christmas that I was going to really enjoy taking more time to decorate.
Until I didn’t. Enjoy it, I mean. I did a little bit, but what I planned to do over several days, I started, then left a box sitting for a few days, and then made myself do it all in one day. I wondered what the heck was wrong with me? I was just in this weird funk. I know now that there are some things I need to be doing to take better care of myself, but beyond that I was just struggling with being excited about decorating like I usually was.
I need to take a step back here for a few minutes so you can get the bigger picture. Back in 2009 when I went to the US in December to be in a friends wedding I seized the opportunity to buy and bring back a Christmas tree for our family. My parents had brought us a 4 foot one the year before, the first Christmas that Chris and I didn’t travel “home” because we had started our adoption. When we moved into the apartment I knew I wanted a bigger tree, so I bought one online and that thing just fit into my bags. It claimed it was 6 feet tall, but that was a gross exaggeration. The thing was really 5 feet with a one foot top branch that was so floppy it couldn’t hold anything without extra support. But, I loved that tree because it was ours and it fit this one perfect spot in our apartment without taking up a huge amount of space. A few years ago the base broke on it, so I made a new one that raised it up and I could pretend that it really was 6 feet tall. I have good memories of decorating it and snuggling by the lights with Chris as we watched movies in the living room. I remember Alex also chewing on the Christmas lights. Thank goodness they were indoor/outdoor lights and water proof…
For my whole life picking out the Christmas tree was always my very favorite part of getting ready for the holidays. Our family always carved out a Saturday two weeks before Christmas and went together to get the tree. Always. I always had two rules for picking out a tree – it had to be taller than me, and it needed to be as bushy as possible. I wanted it FAT! After wandering around and narrowing down our choice we would make the purchase and we would bring it home, Dad would fight with it to get it straight in the stand, then sit back and watch as I put the lights on. When that was finished we would push it back into it’s corner, and he would tie it with fishing line to the bracket holding our window blinds up. We learned from experience to not skip this step. Then the decorating would happen. Dad would sit back and let us know where there were holes that needed to be filled, my brother would hang a few decorations then be done and crash on the couch, then Mom and I would finish. We would pack away the boxes and turn down all the lights and ooh and ahh. It wasn’t abnormal to find our family just hanging out in the living room to be around the tree.
That was my tree history, so while I loved our little tree, I would still scroll through blog posts with Christmas house tours and see their big full trees and feel a bit sad. I would look at Christmas trees online and dream of the day when we could somehow manage to get a big tree, then remind myself that we didn’t have anywhere to put it.
And then we moved into our new house…
Last year after I got the tree up in what in my mind was “the Christmas tree corner” from the time that I designed the house, my heart sank a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I was SO thankful for that little tree in so many ways, but as I looked at it in our new house it just looked small. Where it had felt like it took up so much space in our old place, in our new place it looked like the corner swallowed it. I found myself scrolling through the tree choices online and wondering if there was any possibility of getting a new one for this year. Then I went to Canada and found myself looking at every tree department, and yet felt like I couldn’t justify the expense. That and my bags were full of Christmas presents and other things already.
I came home and decorated and that funk settled in. The kids and I decorated the tree, but I kept looking at it and rather than being excited about it I would see it overfilled with the ornaments we loved. Ornaments we had collected, ornaments we had made, and ornaments given to us by friends and family.
We finally got wifi working in our house (don’t even get me started on passing almost an entire year with cruddy internet) and I found myself sitting in the living room scrolling through online sites to look at their trees. I made myself a promise that if it works out for me to go to Canada next November like we’re hoping, that a new tree would be my main purchase. I already had a giant duffel bag all picked out for it’s transport.
Then yesterday happened.
I had to go to St. Marc to run some errands, one of which was to go to the pharmacy to stock up on Tylenol. To get to the pharmacy you have to walk through the open market, the area where they sell a lot of used items. Imagine a road wide enough for two lanes of traffic that is so filled with vendors and people just laying out their wares on the ground that there’s a path about two and a half feet wide to move through. It’s hot and congested and overwhelming with so many people and things and motos and…
I was walking through and was about halfway between where I entered and the pharmacy when a woman right next to me started putting a Christmas tree together. I literally almost walked into it as I dodged another person. It was taller than I was, and a bit smooshed from just being put in and out of a box every day. Basically it was assembled, but it wasn’t super pretty. I kept walking and went to the pharmacy.
The pharmacy is actually up a level from the street, and you can stand in line just inside the entrance and look down over the street. I could see the tree from where I was standing and kept looking at it and having conversations in my head about being content with what I had. I finished my purchase and decided that asking the price hurt no one.
I wandered up to it and the ladies selling it came over and asked if I was interested. I asked the price, then laughed at them because there was no way I was paying that much. I’ve learned that as a foreigner prices will always be at least double what they should be, so when I barter I always go down by at least half. In this case I started to walk away and they called me back and asked what price I would give them. I told them, and they laughed, but then one of them said, “You know how to give a good price!” This was all happening in Creole, and the fact that I offered a hard counter offer in fluent Creole earned me some respect, which always feels good. The main lady said she just couldn’t sell it for that, but then countered again with a price just a bit above what I had offered. I made a show of hemming and hawing while they made a show of fluffing the tree a bit. I saw the box for it sitting up on the roof of one of the storage sheds back off the street. I decided that since it was in pretty good shape, and taller than me, and looked decently bushy and came with a box I would buy it. I knew I could easily sell our old one, and fast, and put that money back towards the purchase. I handed over the equivalent of $60 US, they boxed it up, and I hauled it to my car.
When I got home I unpacked my groceries and changed, then got to work. Chris had to go our for a bit, so all this started while he was away. I started un-decorating the old tree, then set up the new one and began “fluffing” the lower branches. Then I started squealing a little bit. When I saw it on the street it was still smooshed together from being in the box and being packed away. As I started separating branches and bending them into place I realized that these were the nice branches, where some where tapered to look like new growth and others were more blunt to look like they’d be cut. I kept fluffing and got more giddy. I realized that in front of me I had a gem. What I thought would be a “make do” tree for a few more years, turned into a beautiful, pretty real looking, bushy tree. I was dancing around the living room in excitement. Chris came home as I was stringing lights on and obviously wanted to know what the heck was going on and gave me one of those “we don’t need this” looks, then left the room. I decided to not let that crush me and kept going.
I moved it in place, cleaned up the stray needles and put the tree skirt on, then started decorating. In the past few years I’ve done the bulk of the decorating, but set the kids personal ornaments aside for them to put on. This is how I save my sanity. This year we were working on the “don’t put one ornament right in front of another one, okay?” And I may have taken a whole bunch off the other day and rehung them because Alex kept moving them around. You know, in the midst of all the times where he actually climbed under the tree…
After I finished I took a break on the couch and started chatting with a friend, and then sold our old tree within two hours of taking the decorations off of it. Christmas trees are a hot commodity here where we have to bring everything in our luggage or pay shipping fees.
About that time Chris came back in and asked what I was up to. I told him I had just sold the old Christmas tree for $40, so once I took that off what I paid I had just got us a new, amazing Christmas tree for $20. And, because I’ve been checking out Christmas trees for the past few years I know that the tree I got would retail for about $250, if not more. I actually saw one that was as close as I could find today that was regularly $575 and on sale for $250! I decided I would err on the conservative side…
You guys, I got a $250 tree for $20!!! My ever practical husband had to concede that it was a screaming deal and he even said that it was a really pretty tree, which almost made me fall over. Most of all, he said, he realized having a happy wife goes a long way. Smart man :)
Just so you can see the difference, here’s the old tree all naked…
And here’s the new one…
As I was chatting with my friend and Chris things started to click for me. I was ridiculously happy and I realized that I had some really deep attachments to the whole tree thing that I didn’t realize, and that was why I was in such a funk. I had gotten to the point of feeling more homesick because I missed the whole big tree thing. As I looked at our new tree sitting in the tree corner in all it’s tall, bushy glory I realized that our house now felt more like a home, and less like we were just trying to do the best we could during the holidays.
When I got the old tree we spent one Christmas in Haiti, then travelled back to Canada for the next three, so it was less important then. It was just a “make due” option to help things feel festive while we anticipated our trip. I laughed at the fact that we got to put up two trees every year. We’ve now spent the last three Christmases in Haiti and know that this will be our norm for the most part. As I thought about what a Christmas tree means to me – all the happy memories, the celebration of the Christmas season, comfort, home – it was like a final layer of settling in fell into place for me.
I know that might all sound crazy, because it’s just a Christmas tree, but in a place where the only people who seem to do the same types of cultural things around Christmas that we do are other expats, this was a huge slice of normal that I desperately needed. And, I feel like it was a special little God given gift for me yesterday. Like God literally plopped that tree right in my path to the point where I literally walked into it. Something that while so unimportant in the grand scheme of things, healed a little place in my heart yesterday.
That also got me thinking about things from an expat/missions perspective, and I thought about all our friends who are here through the holidays and how we’ve all had to tweak our traditions to fit Haiti, and to find ways to blend what is important to us while we create new ones too. That’s another blog post though :)
The kids came home from school and freaked out in a good way, then decorated and pretended to hug the tree. When I look at the tree I see a decade of family memories already created…
A mercury glass heart – the ornament I bought the year Chris and I got married. Still one of my all time favorites.
A small olive wood cross from my friend Elisabeth, a burlap ornament with a Haiti Coke bottle cap from the first Christmas ladies craft day I planned a few years ago, and my metal Rudolph from the Apparent Project that creates jobs so Haitian parents can take care of their kids rather than giving them up for adoption.
A white clothes pin angel – the first ornament Olivia ever made. She was 3. A green popsicle stick star – the first ornament Alex ever made. He was 2. Glittery snowflakes to make me think of Canada.
One of the mini sweaters that I’ve knitted, because knitting makes me happy and makes me think of my Granny.
The Coca Cola ornament I got the year my friend Lindsay and I shared an apartment, the year before I moved to Haiti. Coca Cola was always something my mom stocked up on for the holidays when it went on sale for $0.99/2L bottle.
The sheep ornament Nanna and I picked out for Alex last month because Ba Ba Black Sheep was his favorite song as a baby/toddler, and he insisted on a Ba Ba Black Sheep cake for his 2nd birthday. He was so excited when he opened this guy.
The squirrel ornament I got in a girls club gift exchange when I was in grade 2 and the wood slice ornament I made in 2013.
As I was putting away the box with the extra ornaments (because, bigger tree!!) I thought about how much I’m going to look forward to pulling this baby out next year, and for many years after that. I have a feeling that I have a few people who will be right there with me. I love that my love for the holidays is carrying over to our kids because they have such huge enthusiasm for this stuff. Alex is so ridiculously expressive that I knew his reaction would just be the icing on the cake and I wasn’t disappointed. He shared a couple of awe filled it’s so beautifuls and has done some tree hugging of the non-protest variety. This morning when we were all snuggling on the couch looking at the tree I asked the kids again if they liked it and they very excitedly said they did, and then Alex followed it up with, “You know what else? I can’t climb under it!” I may have busted out laughing and admitted that thought had already crossed my mind…
Now the only thing I need to plan to bring back next year is more lights… ;)