Two years ago, for the first holiday season in our 1874 Garden District Greek Revival two-story American townhouse, we bought a 12-foot Christmas tree that, with the family angel perched on top, lightly brushed the aged plaster above it.
One night just before Yuletide, we woke up to a crash.
No reindeer, no jolly gift-bringer – just our 12-foot tree, which had toppled over onto its side, and now lay diagonally across the living room, dry needles fluttering around it like so many flies over a fresh kill.
Last year, we bought a fat 8-foot tree and put it in the den.
When I lived on the lakefront, in a boxy brick house with 8-foot ceilings, I yearned for a space that could accommodate my holiday imaginings. Soaring ceilings, wrought-iron fences, cobbled sidewalks, all the accouterments of yesteryear that make New Orleans’ 19th-century architecture so incredibly alluring.
What’s that saying about being careful what you wish for?
For the past two years, we have hauled out a 20-foot ladder (who ever knew I would yearn for an outdoor light that could be changed with a stepstool?) and hung real evergreen wreaths on the lace balconies across our second-floor façade. Fake greenery, Stewart tells me, is unconscionable when you live in a house that saw horse-drawn carriages clip clop by when it was built.
For those fresh wreaths (ever been punctured by a Frazier fir needle?), I fashioned oversized bows from yards and yards of scarlet ribbon. It’s not as easy as it looks. My apprenticeship in bow-tying included 412 hours of watching Youtube how-to videos. (Did you know that you can learn to gut a fish on Youtube? But that’s a story for another day.)
The results benefitted from hanging 15 feet over our heads, as the distance, at least to my myopic vision, covered a myriad of imperfections.
It doesn’t help that our neighbor on one side swaths her lower gallery with designer gold wreaths and acres of satin and lace, interlaced with pinpoint white lights. Or that the ones across the street drape their wrought-fence with beribboned garlands as elegantly and flawlessly as Scarlett did that satin 18-inch waist sash.
No, one can’t as easily get away with inexpertly home-crafted holiday outdoor décor in an historic preservation district. My lopsided grazing wire reindeer (half the lights dimmed and died after Katrina) would seem woefully out of place on herringbone-patterned brick, and I don’t think area residents would appreciate my flock of plastic flamingos, which I have been known to drape for the holidays with pink boas and blinking lights.
Really, I should be better at holiday décor, given my background: My parents turned seasonal decorating into an extreme sport.
We lived in the rural (really rural) south, where Christmas tree lots filled in mid-November with specimens that only Charlie Brown could love. So my dad would buy two of the tallest trees, then strip one of all its branches. Then he carefully drilled holes in the trunk of the other, and stuck in the extra branches to make one extra-full, perfectly shaped tree.
The cut-and-drill tree-shaping ritual was a spectacle in our house that heralded the advent of the season as concretely as any front-lawn crèche or bell-ringing solicitor in Salvation Army attire.
I can remember hours of agonizingly stringing popcorn and cranberries on nylon thread, with a needle that seemed to go far more easily into my thumb than the little white kernels.
“I’ll bet you‘ve forgotten the tree flocking that we put on using the vacuum cleaner,” my mother emailed me last week, after I had written to mention my ersatz decorating. “First, we had to figure out how to make the vacuum flow out instead of suck in, no easy trick. Then we hooked up a ‘mix’ of Ivory Snow flakes and water in the easy-to-use container that was sold extra. This had to be done outside because the flocking stuck forever to anything it touched — floors, furniture, hair — and was impossible to remove.
“A big tree would take about four bags. The whole process took at least eight hours and we weren’t speaking when it was over. So do-it-yourself flocking is a lot like do it yourself spray on tan: It never comes out evenly. When the tree was finished, we had to put extra lights and decorations in certain places to cover where the flocking was scanty.
“One of the joys of getting older is to say, ‘Gosh, I really miss decorating a tree,’ while in reality I am thrilled to sit back with a gin and tonic and watch someone else do it.”
Perhaps I’m more like my mother than I thought (Although this is the same woman who once dyed my white Pekingese pink for Easter).
Or maybe my inept décor sense is simply a rebellion against the excesses of my youth.
Of course, the nice thing about the holidays is that most of us look out our windows at other people’s seasonal décor. Here in the Garden District, the view can’t be beat.
I think I’ll go mix a gin and tonic.
Renee Peck, a former feature writer and editor at The Times-Picayune, is editor of NolaVie.