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McGrath: Christmas tradition trumps practicality

David McGrath’s daughter Janet her husbKevstfront their real Christmas tree their Chicago home. | Supplied photo

David McGrath’s daughter Janet and her husband, Kevin, stand in front of their real Christmas tree in their Chicago home. | Supplied photo

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:20AM



Janet, our youngest child, married last summer to Kevin, was getting everything ready for Christmas in her new apartment in Chicago. I won’t use the word “stubborn,” but Janet has always been independent, and she is intent on establishing their own holiday tradition.

But a dozen phone calls in early December made clear her need to replicate aspects of holidays growing up in our homes in Evergreen Park and Oak Forest.

“You sent her the Christmas stockings, right?” I asked my wife.

“She has questions about the Christmas tree,” Marianne said. “Should she put sugar in the water and like that.”

This is a perennial topic of debate between me and Marianne. Not sugar water, but Christmas trees. Real ones have always been important to her — the annual pilgrimage to the tree lot on a chilly night, the scent of pine, keepsake ornaments.

For me, it’s a mess of trouble for something you discard after two weeks, not to mention $50 that would be better put toward gifts or charity. At least, that’s been my losing argument going on 30 years.

Why should Janet and Kevin launch their own 30 years of wasteful practice? Her older siblings, Jackie and Michael, are traditional tree lovers, hopeless romantics like their mother.

But Janet more closely favors my pragmatism, so I thought I’d have a supporter in this year’s discussion. And who knows, Kevin might even be allergic. Pungent pine sap could very well trigger a bad reaction to mold.

That’s what I plan to tell her. Along with the fire danger, of course. Their place is in the Lakeview community, an upper-floor apartment where a spark or an electrical short in a string of Christmas lights could make them victims in one of the 300 Christmas tree fires that occur nationwide every year.

And there’s that infamous video showing a tree exploding in flames, put out by the National Fire Protection Association. Being technophiles, Janet and Kevin could see it for themselves on the Internet.

And what is the purpose of sawing down a tree to prop up in your living room? Some folks say it’s because the evergreen symbolizes eternal life, the promise of Christmas. But the trees don’t stay “ever green.”

So you pay through the nose for a dead tree that you drag inside. And if it doesn’t burn down your house, you drag it back outside after New Year’s Day, where it’s picked up and likely ends up in a landfill, releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere.

“Not if it’s recycled,” Marianne argues.

But even when recycled, I counter, where do the inert pesticides go? Tree farmers apply cancerous, insect-killing poisons every year over a tree’s approximate life of 10 years, and many towns don’t have the recycling facilities to safely destroy what remains.

The phone rings. “Dad, listen to this!” It’s Janet calling again.

Or at least she was there for a second. Her voice is quickly replaced with some kind of scratchy music held up to the phone. It sounds like “Jingle Bell Rock” but with different lyrics.

Janet comes back on and asks whether I recognize it. “Refresh my memory,” I say, which I immediately regret because then she plays the whole thing over again.

Finally, she explains it’s the music box ornament we gave her when she was little. She goes on to say how she remembers everything about that Christmas morning — including the red “footie” pajamas she wore as she turned the tiny key in the ornament to start the song.

This morning in her new home when she wound the key, it all flooded back: Jackie hugging her Cabbage Patch doll; Mike blowing into his new saxophone; Grandpa still with us, his thundering laugh.

There’s a halting tremble in her voice. “It’s special, Dad.”

It’s just a jack-in-the box ornament playing a silly ditty.

But to her, it’s a hymn. And the ornament is an heirloom, a generational artifact like an antique creche or treetop star that triggers memories and gives permission for families to express love, even if only once a year.

“I know, honey.”

“What about the tree, Dad? Kevin and I weren’t sure what kind to get.”

“Uh, probably balsam fir. They last the longest.”

And I wonder why I can never win these arguments.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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