The Christmas season finally got started at my house Monday, when my wife scored a free tree from another family.

They go to Texas every year for the holiday, but their kids don’t want to wait until late December to start decorating. So it’s been a family tradition for them to buy and decorate a tree sometime after Thanksgiving, and drag it out to the curb around the solstice, when two moms and three cute little girls fly away from New England to celebrate in the Bible Belt.

But this year, they were nice enough to bring the tree to our house, where our hectic lives have gotten in the way of most holiday preparation.

Which is fine, because free Christmas trees are kind of a family tradition for me.

My mother was born a Yankee Protestant, and my father is an Eastern Orthodox immigrant from Yugoslavia. That meant that for some of my formative years, we celebrated two Christmases – the one on Dec. 25 with all the TV specials, and then the “Old Calendar” Christmas on Jan. 7.

At my maternal grandparents’ in Boston, we decorated with pine boughs and mistletoe, hung stockings by the fireplace and read “The Night Before Christmas” in unison, in what now seems like a kind of a weird ritualistic chant invoking the mystical gift bringer.

Two weeks later, back home in New York, we practiced the few Serbian traditions my dad could remember. The most popular was the one where he would sneak out of the house and come to the door “disguised” with his hat pulled low and a scarf wrapped around his face.

My mother would open the door a crack.

“Have the children been good?” he’d ask in a gruff voice.

“Yes,” my mother would lie, and let him in, where he walked around the house throwing candy and nuts on the floor in the shape of a cross. My sister and I would follow him around on our knees, picking them up and making chicken noises.

Some compromises had to be made, but my father is a very agreeable man.

The Serbs also have a traditional tree at Christmas, but it’s not an evergreen, it’s an oak. And they don’t decorate it, they set it on fire.

The tradition calls for it to be put in a fireplace and hit with a stick. The number of sparks that fly up tell you how much good luck you can expect in the coming year, or, as sometimes happened, ignite your roof.

We didn’t have a fireplace, and there were no oak trees for sale in our neighborhood, so we compromised with Christmas trees, which after Dec. 26 could be had for nothing, literally. A few times, we had a tree in the living room and my sister and I both had our own trees by our beds.

This all changed when our church was released from its ties to the old country and formed the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, which moved Christmas to Dec. 25. The bishops must have thought they had sound theological reasoning for this, but it looked like a rip-off to me.

So, after that, our Serbian Christmases got drowned out by the American Christmas machine, where Santa Claus and elves made us forget about chickens and nuts, and whatever we had been doing on the floor.

My father doesn’t complain. A marriage requires you to sign up for some traditions that come with your spouse, and these seem to be particularly potent around the holidays, when “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is considered a reasonable explanation for almost anything.

I’ve gotten in the most trouble when I tried to change things up. I was permanently relieved of the responsibility of getting a Christmas tree after the year I brought home what I thought was a sensible table-top model that let everyone move around our tiny little house with ease. It made the kids cry.

At 16 and 18, the “kids” are long past crying over Christmas trees, but they have not forgotten and still get mad when they think about it.

I’ll be interested to know what traditions, if any, from our family they will want to continue.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]