December 24, 2012
My whole adult life, I have had my own Christmas tree on only two occasions. The reason is simple: I always spent Christmas back home or with the family of a friend. But even so, I love Christmas trees. So every year, I bought three or four ornaments, which I would bestow upon my hosts and other friends.
I put a great deal of time and discernment into buying ornaments, but seldom much money. My shopping would begin with the after-Christmas clearance sales, but it would extend year round. I would buy from museum stores, thrift and antique shops, ethnic festivals and arts and craft fairs, and souvenir and gift shops when I traveled. (The best places were in Munich and Nuremberg.) I was particularly pleased when I could buy something handcrafted in Germany or Scandinavia.
But I never kept any ornaments for myself. Thus, when I had my first Christmas tree in Atlanta, it was a last-minute thing, and a friend loaned me some ornaments, including a large selection of glass fruits and vegetables. (I still wonder where she got glass asparagus and pea pod Christmas ornaments. Her only answer was cryptic: “We were from California.”)
This year, I decided to stay home in anticipation of a move. And the last thing I wanted before moving was to accumulate new things. But then the Christmas spirit got into me. So on Saturday, we braved crowds, traffic, and cold winds and rain to get a Christmas tree. We also needed to buy ornaments, since I had exactly four: one that had been given to me, and three that I had bought as gifts for a friend who died a couple of years ago.
The first stop was the Target store in Serramonte, south of San Francisco. I figured I could get some simple, cheap red and gold glass ornaments and a couple of strings of lights. It was the nightmare before Christmas! I always tell people in Middle America who poo-pooh my concerns about white demographic displacement to take a trip to the future in a time machine. By that, I mean buy a plane ticket to California, where America’s future is now. The Serramonte Target store should be their first stop. The store was gridlocked with a vast, sluggish tide of brown people chattering in every language except English. In the background, I heard a remarkably insipid song, pitched to the tastes of toddlers, Teletubbies, and Toltecs, wishing us all a “Feliz Navidad!”
The Christmas ornaments were pretty much cleaned out. The only ones that were untouched were decorated with the silhouettes of bears, elk, foxes, and moose. There was also a box of cardinals. As I put one set of each in my basket, I wondered why they had been overlooked. Then it occurred to me that none of the shoppers I had seen could relate to such creatures, even as food. I imagined that the vast empty shelves had been stocked with festive Christmas armadillos, peccaries, burros, and chupacabras.
Tucked away at the back of one shelf were a couple of boxes of old-fashioned Christmas balls in red, green, gold, and silver. Noting only that they were labeled “shatter resistant,” I grabbed them and headed for the endless queues at the registers, where I lined up behind the only other white people there: a brother and sister, both tall and blonde, which at one time was considered quintessentially “California.” (I had passed two other white men as I came in, both dorks in tow of their “submissive” Asian girlfriends.)
But I know that I was not the only one in that store who felt like he was in a foreign country. The place was foreign to everyone. But the alienation of whites is even worse, because every non-white in that store had a homeland somewhere in the world. But whites no longer have homelands anywhere. White countries are for everyone.
Then it was off to buy the tree. A sour old white woman in a Santa hat presided over a lot filled with fir trees and lawn ornaments. Her little helpers were Mexican mestizos. Communicating in sign language and painfully mangled English, one of them helped us pick out a tree, then he trimmed its branches and netted it.
As we checked out, the woman asked him “Noble or Douglas fir?” His response was “Nobless.” “Douglas?” “No, nobless!” “Douglas?” she asked again, in evident annoyance, adding, “That looks like a noble fir.” Feeling that I was in a Fawlty Towers episode, I cut in and said, “Noble. He is saying ‘nobless.’” Without a word, she rang me up, and her little helper carried the tree to the car.
We offered him bungee cords to tie it to the roof, and he refused, using twine. “I been working here 30 years,” he said, in his first sentence of (almost) correct English. Thirty years, I thought, and he can barely speak English, even to communicate the most basic vocabulary connected to his job. “Feliz Navidad!” he said cheerfully. Naturally, I replied, “Merry Christmas.”
Sunday, I went out to get some lights for the tree. More torrential rains and surging non-white crowds. I like Blade Runner plenty, but I never thought I would be living in it.
When it was finally time to trim the tree, I discovered, first off, that although the tree was grown in the United States, everything else I bought was made in China. The instructions for the lights were written in Chinglish.
The three glass cardinals came with red cloth loops to hang them on the branches. One of the cardinals did not have eyes painted on it. (Perhaps the Chinese slave who created it was sent off for organ harvesting before she was finished.)
None of the other ornaments had hangers. Or, to be more precise, they did not have little metal hooks. Instead, they had bits of gold string that I was expected to thread through the top of each ornament and tie into loops. I tried it once, but the thread was so thin that I could barely see what I was doing and so slick that the knot did not hold. As soon as I hung it on the branch, the ornament fell to the floor. Fortunately, it was “shatterproof,” which, I discovered, means “plastic.”
I was horrified: Christmas ornaments should not be shatterproof, like engine parts. They should be made of glass, metal, and wood (and what I refer to, somewhat desperately, as “the better kind of resin”). They should be beautiful, fragile, and exquisitely crafted. They should be carefully displayed, then carefully stored away until next year. But under no circumstance should they be plastic.
Thoroughly disgusted and just wanting to get it over with, I resorted to hanging the ornaments with twist ties, which actually worked quite well. I could not find a star for the tree, so I used a large package bow. By this point, I saw no reason not to yield to the sheer farce of it all, so I tossed on a couple of Hindu religious symbols that I bought in Varanasi in 2004 (also made of plastic).
Then I stood back to judge my handiwork. It actually looked good. But I knew that this Christmas tree, like America as a whole, is just a cheap, hollowed out, globalized plastic simulacrum of something real, something that I grew to love as a child but now, I fear, is gone forever.
Well, at least the tree is made of wood.
Remembering Knut Hamsun
(August 4, 1859–February 19, 1952)
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