Tree of Life

Being home for the holidays means something different this year

Nick Amoscato (Flickr/namoscato)
Nick Amoscato (Flickr/namoscato)

I imagine that all children think their family’s Christmas tree is the best, and I was no exception. While other families upheld the tradition of traipsing into the chilly air to chop down misshapen Douglas firs, we maintained an arboreal tradition of our own, holding onto the same plastic-y, artificial tree for more than 20 years. Its synthetic branches were not fooling anyone, nor were they trying to; I respected its humility. Other families may have also strung up their trees with blinking or multicolored lights, but our lights remained a plain, soft white—a classic look, I liked to think. Contributing most to my steadfast affection for our dear old tree, though, was its lack of theme. While many of my friends’ households opted to adorn their trees with perfectly matching brocade ribbons and ornaments that looked like they’d come straight off the shelves of Pier 1, ours always boasted a hodgepodge of homemade and hand-me-down creations. You could not have convinced me there was a lovelier tree in the world.

Now that I am an adult, little has changed, though we did recently upgrade to a more realistic-looking tree with pre-strung lights (the luxury!). I’ve only grown fonder of the medley of ornaments, and the tree has remained my favorite of all our Christmas decorations. It came as a bit of a shock, then, when my mother abruptly informed me that she did not want to put it up this year. “I just don’t want to deal with all that,” she said, as casually as if we were discussing waxing the floors. “It’s not like anyone is coming to visit.”

This was true. My brother and sister-in-law had offered to come by and exchange gifts with us from the relative safety of our driveway, but no one would be entering our house; no one other than us had since March. Still, surely I had misunderstood—not having a Christmas tree seemed unthinkable. “I’m here,” I said, a bit stupidly.

“Yes,” said my mother. “But do we really need it? We’re all getting older.”

I did not feel particularly old. At the moment, I felt like a petulant child, which would support my theory that we all age several years in reverse upon returning to our childhood homes. It did not, however, bode well for the Christmas cheer with which I was determined to end this hellish year, so I bit back the temptation to pitch a fit. “At least let me do it,” I said, and my mother fixed me with a look that said plainly she did not believe me capable of setting up and taking down an entire Christmas display. “I’ll do all of it!” I insisted. “You won’t have to do anything!”

Finally, she sighed, then shrugged. “Well,” she said. “If you want to.”

And so I found myself alone in our living room the following weekend, an array of decorations spread out on a quilt at my feet, more still in an overflowing plastic tub off to the side. Our tree loomed intimidatingly empty behind me. There must have been more than a hundred ornaments on that quilt alone—how had I never noticed how many we owned? There were Santas of every shape and size, glitter-dusted ballerinas from my dancing days, vintage wooden figures I had always attributed to my late grandmother’s European travels, though in truth I have no idea where she bought them. My aunt and uncle in Texas had sent us a bandana-wearing cow, a sparkling miniature grill, and other similarly themed ornaments, and my brother’s and my combined 12 years of elementary school had resulted in a host of construction-papered, pipe-cleanered, glitter-glued creations. And this was only the start.

There had never seemed to be that many when we were all doing the decorating together. We’d each had “our” ornaments—ones we had made, ones we had each been given, ones we (well, mostly I) had declared our favorites. I did not want to admit that my mother had a point, but there was something depressing about putting up the tree when indeed no one was coming to visit for the holidays, and evidently I was the only one in the house who cared to see it.

Well. Too late for that. I’d declared we were going to have a Christmas tree, and a Christmas tree we were going to have, dammit. I tuned the radio to the station that plays 24/7 Christmas tunes every December, picked up the first ornament I saw—a little violin-playing angel dressed in pale blue tulle, courtesy of my grandmother—and hung it among the topmost branches, taking pains to adjust it until it lay just so. I did the same with the next ornament, a small wooden rocking horse, and so on and so forth, quickly realizing that, alone, I at least had the freedom to place the decorations exactly how I pleased. Every few minutes, I took a step back to examine the tree, rearranging the ornaments to fill any gaps in the branches, ensuring that no two of the same design hung too close. I was nothing if not particular.

I had been able to control next to nothing this year. I hadn’t seen most of my friends or coworkers in months. I’d watched helplessly as disease and cruelty, seemingly in equal measure, ravaged my fellow citizens. But this—the tree, the ornaments, delicately placing them one by one—this I could do.

The onset of the pandemic was, in some ways, like an oddly validating rush of adrenaline—as if the rest of the world had finally caught up to my point of view. I’d spent years getting nice and cozy with my own anxiety, and it had ratcheted up to peak levels in the weeks leading to March, as dread-inducing headlines appeared on my phone by the hour. I knew something bad was about to happen! I felt like shouting. I told you all we should have been prepared! My overwhelming emotion, however, was still just fear. I could hardly focus on work, calling home constantly, often unable to hide the tears in my voice. I ached to be in a familiar place with people I loved, instead of in a dingy apartment with roommates I’d found on Craigslist, but I was terrified of unwittingly infecting my parents. Only after an exquisite stroke of luck and good timing granted me a two-week quarantine in a friend’s empty house did I decide to come home, which, luckily, was just an hour away.

My parents and I thought I’d be there only for a few weeks—a month or two, maybe. Then it was June, my lease was up, and the pandemic was exponentially worse. Seeing little point in returning to the city just yet, I sold my IKEA furniture and hauled the remainder of my things into my parents’ dining room. Six months later, here I still am.

According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of young adults are living with their parents, mostly due to the pandemic. I find this comforting, because it means that I am far from the only recent graduate who has ended up back in an old bedroom, sleeping in a twin bed, with garish-colored curtains on the windows and remnants of middle and high school scattered on the walls. Indeed, my first few months at home were rough—I worried with abandon at the news, fiercely missed my friends, was morbidly self-conscious about coworkers seeing my dated room on Zoom calls, and often failed to resist arguing with my parents, who were also adjusting to their unexpected houseguest.

What surprised me, though, is how eventually I managed to settle into a sort of rhythm. I binged new TV shows and caught up on old ones with my parents, the three of us often settling into the couch with bowls of popcorn. I rediscovered my love of baking, thrilled to have use of our ample counter space again. I played tennis on the courts at my former high school, renewed my library card, had my bike repaired to ride around the neighborhood. I even started taking medication for anxiety, which was probably years overdue, and the prescription came from the doctor I’ve seen since birth. In short, home still felt like … well, home.

I’ve read articles about young adults who feel ashamed of moving back in with their parents. Most of them are only there for financial reasons, counting down the days until they have saved enough money to leave. I felt shame for a different reason, then: I was enormously lucky to still have a job, one that allowed me to work remotely. I had returned home only because I’d missed it—and because I was scared.

This is what I am afraid to admit to my peers: that I was homesick long before Covid struck, and that I know I will be homesick long after I move out again, whenever that happens. I feel like I am expected to be in a rush to do so, that I should be furiously apartment-hunting, desperate to return to the independence I had finally been granted upon graduating. Instead, I find myself longing to freeze time, dreading the day I will have to say goodbye to this house and its memories.

After several hours of decorating, I was done at last. Lights and ornaments glistened on the tree; an old “Cookies for Santa” plate was on display; nutcrackers and other assorted tchotchkes were placed on the bookshelves with care. A decades-old crèche, passed down from my grandmother, sat in between the bookshelves, where clay figurines from a French company called Santons Fouque—plus some random additions, including one I am pretty sure is George Washington—stared dutifully at tiny infant Jesus in his miniature manger.

It had grown dark outside, and the house was mostly quiet, my mother upstairs, my father on an errand to retrieve something from his office. Christmas tunes continued to play softly from our old speaker set. I settled into an armchair, deciding I’d deal with my disconcertingly sore lower back tomorrow, and looked at the decorations that hadn’t made the cut. Most of them were sloppy creations from my brother’s and my youth—a paper wreath, now crumpled and misshapen. A reindeer face I’d formed by dipping my foot in green paint and stamping it onto a piece of felt. (Which poor teacher had had to clean off 20-some kids’ feet that day?) A coloring sheet of a nutcracker, which my brother had furiously scribbled in with yellow crayon. I picked that one up, remembering that, for whatever reason, we’d decided it belonged on our front door every year. Kindergarten (1999), my mother had neatly written on the back. That nutcracker could legally drink now.

In the stillness, surrounded by relics of years past, it was easy to imagine that there was no pandemic raging outside our doors, that it was, in fact, just another year, that Christmas still held a kind of untouchable magic for me. I could almost see our younger selves flitting around the house in cartoon-themed pajama sets, giddy to be pinning our art projects all over the walls, gorging ourselves on sugar cookies, arguing about whose icing skills would most please Santa. How proud we had been. How sure of our places in the world—how sure it would always stay the same for us.

I cannot imagine away the pandemic any more than I can imagine my way out of growing up, moving on. And I know that in light of the former, the latter should not really matter. But it does, at least to me, and maybe that is the point. I heard recently that the human brain is incapable of fathoming the massive loss that Covid has wrought, which explains why I and so many others have turned increasingly numb to the headlines, unable to process much beyond what we can do in our little worlds: wear a mask, stay home, wash hands, make donations. Rinse. Repeat.

But grief has to go somewhere. So we carry on with our silly holiday rituals, which are perhaps not so silly after all. We think of those losses we can comprehend, and we hope against hope that there won’t be any more to come.

I will move out, eventually, and presumably for the final time. I’ll come back for the holidays, another global catastrophe notwithstanding. Things will look different; our tree will likely not be up. Maybe this is the last time it ever will be. That is a sad thought.

For now, though, it is, and it glows kindly in its corner. The Christmas station plays the same cheery songs that it does every year. We are still breathing. And George Washington lives to see Jesus born another day.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jayne Ross is the associate editor of the Scholar.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up