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The perfect evergreen

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Living up the hill from a garden center has its benefits, particularly during the holiday season. In fact, however, our current location is not the first time Radek and I have lived next to a gardening center. For our first Christmas as a married couple in Mendham, New Jersey we selected a beautiful Fraser fir, from the garden center just below our apartment. The gardener drilled a hole through the bottom of the tree trunk so that it would stand straight on the stand. Then, Radek hoisted the tree on his shoulder and hefted it up the steps to our apartment. Voila! Christmas had arrived.

That year we trimmed our tree with silver and blue glass balls from IKEA, white and blue lights and silver glittery snowflakes. Weeks later we were still finding sparkles on the floor and in our hair. Radek wasn’t a fan of the traditional multi-colored lights and hodge-podge tree-decorating style that I’d grown up with, but he consented to buy a large, beautiful fir, so I acquiesced to his more streamlined decorating taste. We had only a few true ornaments for the tree, and we didn’t have a star or an angel. My mother had given us a mushroom elf that looked a bit Czech, so we hung him in the place of honor at the top of the tree. Looking down at us, he reminded me of our blended family and of the mixed-tradition holiday that would soon unfold.

By the end of the holiday season, our tree had acquired several more special ornaments, and we’d acquired a new member of the family. On the morning of December 24, our daughter Anna Lee was born, an unexpected three weeks early. After the delivery, the nurses brought her back to my room tucked into a stocking and wearing a hand-knit red cap, looking suspiciously like the Christmas elf that decked our tree. That Christmas some Czech friends living in the States who didn’t want to be alone over the holidays stayed several days with us. Amid the hubbub of a new baby, it was a bit of a chaotic holiday.

Over the Christmas’s, we’ve collected different ornaments from various travels and our respective heritages. Hand-blown Czech glass icicles hang beside American Colonial Virginia ornaments, ceramic figures of traditionally-dressed Moravian children share limb space with Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and a round-bellied Santa Claus. Ironically, we even have a glass pickle ornament made in the Czech Republic that my mom found for us in a local gift shop near her home, as well as hand-crotched snowflakes that my friend’s grandmother used to make. When we’re in the US for the holidays, my family usually gives us an ornament to add to our collection. Our children also take pride in making their own ornaments each year.

This year, Christmas crept up on us, and it wasn’t until this week that I had a chance to take a walk to the local garden center with the kids and check out the tree selection. Like many Czech garden centers, the shop near our house offers Christmas tree options of jedle (fir), borovice (pine) and smrk (spruce) with prices ranging from 25 USD for a small spruce to over 100 USD for a tall, thick-limbed fir. While some of the trees were harvested locally, the fir trees came from Denmark. Although the prices were at least twice what we’d paid the Christmas tree farm in Virginia last year, they seemed average for the Czech market and cheaper than some of the trees in front of the larger supermarkets. In addition to the assorted trees, the garden center also offered swaths of greenery, decorative wreaths, a live Nativity and in the back, a holding tank for the holiday carp. We’d come on a day when the pickings were slim, and they had just two larger, fuller trees, which made our decision simple. We picked one, and then our neighbors arrived and promptly chose the other one. Oliver suggested that I carry the tree back up to the house, like we’d seen a man doing the other night. I didn’t think I could push the stroller and lug the tree, so we agreed with our neighbor to load it up with his. The scent of evergreen and mulled wine was in the air.

While the kids were excited about choosing the tree, they were more eager to get on with decorating it. Three nights passed before Radek and I could coordinate our schedules so that we could have a family tree-decorating night. In the meantime, the children were beside themselves with anticipation of the excitement to come. Several times I almost let one of them start to decorate, but I stopped myself, knowing that we’d all appreciate waiting to have a family evening in the midst of the pre-holiday frenzy. I’d planned to play Christmas music, set out holiday cookies and have a glass of wine while we watched the kids hang the ornaments on the tree.

In reality, two minutes after I brought the cardboard boxes from the storage room, the kids had torn into the packing paper and were exclaiming with glee over the ornaments, quickly firing off questions about which ornaments belonged to whom and where they all came from. Upon discovering that Anna had claim to most of the children’s ornaments, she is both older and a Christmas baby, Oliver was dismayed, but heartened to discover that he at least had a few more than baby Samuel to call his own. After sorting through their “own” ornaments, they began a head-spinning rush to the tree that resulted in more than one broken ornament and shed of tears. By the time we’d lost three ornaments I was ready to call it quits and send everyone to bed, but their dismayed faces convinced me to persevere a few minutes longer. Finally, we had a good portion of the tree decorated, and I felt we could stop for bedtime. After the children had gone to bed, Radek finished decorating the tree with his characteristic care and precision. We now have a mixture of colored lights and large white candle lights, and our tree looks much more like the delightful hodge-podge I remember from my childhood. Our IKEA balls are nearly gone, but we still hung a few at Samuel’s level, knowing he’d love to pull them off and put them back on again.

In the morning, when the children came downstairs they were delighted to find the decorated tree, in all its splendor. They had, of course, wanted to finish decorating the tree themselves, but they were consoled by the fact that Ježíšek decorates the Christmas tree on the evening of Dec 24 for many of their friends. They were equally cheered to discover there was still a full box of unbreakable and tasty chocolate ornaments to put on the tree for a finishing touch.

I’d like to wish all Half-n-Half readers a joyous holiday season packed with plenty of blended traditions. Half-n-Half will return in January.

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