We have now decorated two Christmas trees since we last trod on American soil. It felt weird to pull out our Christmas decorations this year, like my parents always did, as if we have lived in the same house for 25 years. I remember one year my dad lost his glasses after we decorated the tree and he offered something like $20 to the person who found them. No one ever did, and he had to get new glasses. The next year, when we pulled down the decorations box, we found the glasses down in the bottom among the garland that we never used.
Christmas here is something like Christmas in the States, but also very different. This tree, for example, is potted, roots and all, in a pot with soil in our living room. We got it from a landscaping company that sells trees to be planted outdoors, not beside end tables. I'm sure these people think we are nuts. But you know, a potted tree is actually quite brilliant. No falling needles, no straightening and screwing the trunk into a tree stand, no excessive watering. When you are done with it, you simply donate it to someone who wants a cedar tree.
We bought our tree skirt from a ministry in town called Hearts and Hands, which employs deaf people who would otherwise not find a job. They do beautiful work. Our strings of lights, in the true style of the culture here, have 15 different blinking settings from which to choose. Our ornaments were carefully transplanted from our old life in America, and none of them suffered any damage in the journey. Hanging near the top of the tree, below the highest bow, is the engraved metal ornament that my 5th grade best friend, Teresa, gave me for Christmas almost 20 years ago. I am the furthest thing from a pack rat - to the point of throwing away things I shouldn't, like pennies - but I have kept every Christmas ornament I have ever received, and each year it is wrapped carefully in a paper towel and put away for next Christmas.
There are other things about Christmas here that could be summed up in the phrase, "Close, but no cigar." Family, for example, is simply not present. There are no aunts or uncles, no heavily perfumed second-cousins in heavy wool coats kicking the snow off their galoshes at the door. The people who are around us are nice enough, and we love them plenty, but they are not family. We try to have a meal together, for example, but we all have different expectations. I expect herb stuffing and buttered squash, she expects sweet potatoes, he expects chocolate pie, he expects pumpkin pie, she expects apple pie, he expects sausage balls, I expect date-filled cookies, the list goes on and on. We all eat our delicious yet comprised meal gratefully, while secretly we are each a little put off that the person sitting next to us is our friend's husband and not our little brother, who we haven't seen in 17 months.
Then, when I am having a particularly rough day, such as today, I sit down to nurse my baby on the couch and look up to see the teapot ornament my mom gave me when I was in college - and I am reminded that the miles can't take away everything. Some things endure year after year.