Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Tree Tradition

What do you get when you combine 7 inches of rain, a writer, an artist and cabin fever? Well, the jury is still out, but this writer has been dipping his toes into the fathomless depths of artistic creation this week. The weather has been so dreary and, after a minor squabble over my lack of sufficient holiday spirit, Alma suggested I think of something, anyhing, to make Christmas better this year. Being a Spartan in the land of plenty, I pretty much have everything I need or could want. So the only thing I could think of to make Christmas better was for me to help Alma make this year's tree.

And now the back-story: Alma is allergic to conifers, so we can never have a real tree in our place. In fact, she is so allergic that merely driving by one of the ubiquitous Christmas tree lots will set her off in a fit of wheezing and teary-eyed misery. Whence has developed our one and only Christmas tradition -- each year, Alma thinks up and then makes a new tree. One year she fashioned a tree completely out of origami. Another year she made one from coat hangers that she unbent and then rebent to form the shape of a tree.

Bottom line: it's always fun as Christmas approaches to speculate about what Alma will come up with for her tree. This year, as might be expected, Alma came up with the idea of a beach-themed tree that would use recycled materials and materials we had found during our walks at the beach. By the time I offered to help, Alma already had the frame of the tree created from wire and celluclay:

Near the base of the tree, a terra cotta flower pot that Alma has had for years, you can see some of the leaves which are cut from clear plastic lids that one gets in the containers at the grocery store when purchasing food items from the deli. The first thing I had to do was trace the pattern of a leaf on a piece of clear plastic and then cut the leaf out of the plastic. Actually, one of these deli lids had enough surface area for four such leaves. So I began with five deli lids and traced four leaves per lid, so that I cut out a total of 20 leaves.

Then the real fun began, because the leaves had to be wavy but the plastic had begun as rigid sheets. So once the leaves were cut from the plastic, Alma used a lighter to heat each one just enough so she could mould it into a shape of 3 right-angled folds, so that the two-dimensional plastic cut out transformed into a three-dimensional piece. Next we had to stand at the stove holding a piece of wire over a burner until the wire was glowing red hot. We then inserted the tip of the wire piece through the plastic, in effect drilling (or melting) holes in the plastic, so that Alma could attach each leaf to a branch by using florists wire threaded through the holes.

That was Monday. Fast forward to yesterday. We started the day by making ornaments from sea shells. Alma had collected a massive number of sea shells of all sizes and shapes over the summer months. Alma had decided that we would use glitter glue to decorate the shells in a holiday motif. Here is where the first SNAFU surfaced.

Alma had intended that we write holiday messages like "Peace" and "Joy" on the surfaces of the larger shells, using the colored glitter glue. However, after Alma had used the green glitter glue pen to write "PEACE" on the surface of one of the larger shells, she observed that the glue started to run down the shell, so that the writing became almost indecipherable. It became evident that these glitter glue pens (made by a company called 'RoseArt'), while perfectly appropriate for small children who lack a lot of manual dexterity, are not well suited for any type of fine detail work. The glue tends to come out in spurts and gobs and it does not matter how much or little pressure one applies to the glue pen. So we were reduced to decorating the shells in rather abstract fashion with green and silver glitter glue. The shell-ornaments turned out absolutely gorgeous -- the angels of Christmas must have been watching over us -- but without the written messages that Alma had originally intended they convey.

I felt like I was rediscovering my inner child while using these glitter glue pens. There is something about getting dirty and making a mess in a controlled setting that creates warm fuzzy feelings, even if the project threatens to consume our entire living space at times. And the glitter glue that was stuck to my fingers when we were done decorating the shells peeled and washed right off. In fact, this whole process has allowed me to re-connect with the child in me who used to be able to create without fear of being mocked or belittled.

While I was finishing up the shells, Alma was attaching the remaining leaves to the tree and starting to celluclay its branches so we could hang ornaments from the branches. Without the celluclay on them, the wire branches tend to droop precariously under the weight of the ornaments. This introduced a second SNAFU, however, because it takes time for celluclay to dry and harden. We tried to compensate by placing the tree in front of our gas fireplace in hopes that the heat from it would hasten the drying process. Alma also tried using her portable hair dryer to see if she could spot dry especially problematic areas. However, I am not sure the drying and hardening process is happening as quickly as Alma wishes it.

The last thing I did before going to bed last night was to prepare the top piece -- a starfish cut from the same plastic as the leaves -- by using a glue and acrylic mix to paste white tissue paper to each side of it.  Actually, I did only one side and Alma finished up the second side and cleared a couple of my blemishes.

We still have a lot of work to do and it will be touch and go whether the tree is ready by Christmas. We now have to apply the same tissue-paper treatment that I used on the starfish top piece to each of the 44 leaves, so it will be a busy next couple days. But hey, it's only Wednesday, right? Alma has grown so vexed with the complexity of this tree that she swears this will be the last one she ever does. Actually, though, the process of making the tree may constitute our second or even third Christmas tradition. Because it seems that every year we have a minor or major squabble about my lack of Christmas spirit -- fortunately, we seem to get past the squabble before Christmas Day gets here -- and every year Alma swears she will never do another tree. But after enough months have gone by, Alma always returns to making a new tree. But hey, what's Christmas without at least a few traditions? Traditions, like beauty, rest in the eye of the beholder.

Here is a picture of Christmas Tree 2010 as of 9:00 a.m. PST December 22

 Stay tuned for further photographic updates!

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