On Black Friday in 2001, I stood in the middle of Target’s winter wonderland surrounded by pre-lit Christmas trees of all heights and widths, shiny ornaments, and twinkling lights. For the first time ever, I was about to buy my very own tree for my first apartment. This was an exciting moment for me and my eyes landed on a 6 foot tall tree. It wasn’t quite as fat as I would have liked, but a salesperson unloading some other trees saw me eyeing it and told me it was the last one of that type. If I wanted it, he would let me have the display model for half the price. He needed the spot for a newer one he was about to put out. He packaged it up in a box while I shopped for a few ornaments and some lights to decorate it.
Growing up Muslim, Christmas trees were not welcome in our home. Yet, walking home from the school bus stop on snowy winter afternoons, during December, for many years, I admired all the pretty trees sitting behind frosted windows of our neighbors’ homes. I slowed my walk even on the coldest days just to look at the colorful lights on the fronts of the homes, on the bushes, and of course on the Christmas trees. Sparkling ornaments and red and silver tinsel around the trees caught my eye. Only once I made the mistake of asking my parents if we could get a Christmas tree, not fully grasping the connection between the religion and celebration. After all, when my mom’s company had a family Christmas party, we attended (my mom dressed in one of her nice party saris), and all of us kids sat on Santa’s lap and told him what we wanted for Christmas. At the end of the evening, we all walked out with wrapped gifts, albeit not what we wanted but a gift still. In the years to come, occasionally the family would drive through upscale neighborhoods to admire the colorful lights on the houses. But, in response to my question, I received a lengthy lecture on what it means to be Muslim and not Christian. And so, year after year, until I became an adult with my own apartment, I admired neighbors’ homes and trees during the month of December. I vowed to myself that I would have a tree when I got my own apartment.
I brought my 6 foot tall tree home, unpackaged and assembled it the same day. I hung up the few ornaments I had bought along with the lights and admired my tree all evening. A couple of weeks later, I hosted a tree trimming party, which I learned from a friend was a thing people who had Christmas trees did. I invited my friends to bring their own favorite snowflake or snowman ornament to hang on my tree. Before Christmas, my tree was completely covered with ornaments and lights, sitting in front of the window in my apartment. When I would come home from work in the evening, I would look up from the sidewalk to see the blinking lights of the tree behind the window.
My tree stayed up past the new year, a couple of weeks into January, when I was hit with the flu. It was a bad flu season and I was not spared any symptoms. I lay on my couch under a heavy blanket, box of tissues nearby, my nose running nonstop, feverish and generally miserable, when my mom called to check on me to see how I was doing. And, to inform me that my dad was bringing me soup and some other comfort foods. I sat up and trying to sound as awake and well as I could, I told my mom that I was feeling fine, and there was no need for my dad to trek all the way to the city to bring me food. She insisted he was happy to do it. I insisted it was quite unnecessary. She said it was no trouble and I said I had no appetite; it would go to waste and he shouldn’t bother. She asked me what was wrong, why was I pushing for him not to come. I had not told my parents about my exciting Christmas tree purchase but realizing there was no way around it, I blurted it out to her on the phone. I was met with silence and then a quiet “Why?” I explained how I thought it was so pretty and I liked the colorful lights and the sparkling ornaments. Didn’t she think they were so pretty? That was irrelevant. She told me my dad was already on his way so I had best figure out what I would say to him about the tree. He had left nearly 20 minutes before, leaving me another 25 minutes to figure out a solution or an explanation.
I have heard that in a moment of panic, people find hidden strength to lift extraordinarily heavy items. In that moment of panic, my sick self found the strength to drag the fully assembled and decorated 6 foot tall tree into my bedroom. I also found the energy to run around my apartment to put away random holiday knick-knacks I had bought over the course of the last month, hide the wine and liquor sitting on my dining room table, remnants of a new year’s party, and change out the holiday towels in my bathroom in case he decided to use it while there. With just moments to spare, I lay back down and caught my breath, trying not to look panicked.
My dad had elsewhere to be so he did not visit for very long; just long enough to ask why my bedroom door was shut and I explained it was a mess. He looked skeptical (he knew me well enough to know my room was rarely a mess) but didn’t question it. I tried to appear as relaxed or as sick as I could, hoping there would be no more questions before he left. When he was ready to go, I showed him to the door and thanked him for coming all the way to the city to bring me comfort food. As he said goodbye, he turned and looked at the glass, made to look like icicles, wreath hanging on my front door and asked me if I had become a Christian, now that I was living alone. He went on his way before I could respond.
After drinking the soup, I had regained some energy and brought my tree back out to my living room to continue enjoying it.
Today, the topic of Christmas trees is not discussed with my parents, as we have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. However, they know I go to my Christian in-laws’ home for Christmas. My mom might assume my husband and I have a tree, which we do, but she doesn’t ask.
Our tradition has been to host a tree trimming party with a few close friends. But, this year, on a quiet Thanksgiving afternoon, with the movie Elf playing in the background, my husband and I put up a 7.5 foot pre-lit tree in our first home in North Carolina and decorated it with sparkly and fun ornaments we have collected over the years. Shortly after we were done decorating it, the cat went and sat under the tree as he enjoys doing and I considered taking a picture for the holiday cards I would be making.