The American comedian George Burns once quipped “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” Or perhaps in another country, as is my current situation. I often think about my family, especially when I am visiting with my in-laws. My husband and I spent most of our married life living overseas in neither of our own home countries. Now, that we are back in his, we are spending abundant time with his family and, for that, I am very grateful. My gratitude, which is two fold, stems from the fact that (1) my own family is…disfunctional at best, not available at worst and (2) as a daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and, a new aunt-in-law, I can simply refrain from participating in my husband’s family drama, the latest of which revolves around Tannenbaum, the traditional German Christmas tree.
As I posted a few days ago, my in-laws broke with tradition this year and instead of purchasing their own Tannenbaum, they agreed to accept one from a friend of theirs, a hunter with acres of forest land. Their only concern and regret at that time was the height of the tree they would receive, which they knew would be much shorter than the ones they were used to. Why people assume bigger is better, I will never understand. They were prepared for a shorter tree but, as so often happens in similar situations, their other expectations were not well managed.
My husband and his papa drove about 50 kilometers to the hunter’s house for coffee, cake and schnapps, after which they were supposed to pack up the tree and bring it home. As they entered, I saw that they were empty handed and asked about the tree. They replied that they had dropped it off at the family farmhouse, just outside of town. My husband replied that, as is the tradition in this part of Germany, the tree does not go up in the house until 24 December, still a few days away. I wondered why they didn’t simply bring the tree home to be stored out back or in the cellar. Then, my father in law added, with much disappointment in his voice, that the tree, a pine, was not what he expected. “A pine?” asked my mother in law incredulously. “Yes, a pine. Can you imagine? As a Christmas tree?” In my naive ignorance of Christmas trees and thinking that all trees were the same, I asked what was wrong with the tree. Obviously, it did not meet their expectations.
“Well, it’s not like he purposely chose an uglier tree for us; his is just as ugly.” “But the tree is shorter than me.” “What’s the big deal if it’s a pine? Who cares?” “It’s just very ugly and disappointing.” But we can wrap it with something to make up for the skinny branches.” “I think we should just buy ourselves a new tree.” “Or how about doing without a tree this year? ” “But how could he give us such an ugly tree?” “What do we do next year?” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. As so happens when you assemble family members, and after all the updates and news have been shared (one or two days), it is so easy to fixate on another topic everybody has an opinion on- the ugly pine tree- ad nauseum for the next several days:
Honestly, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was for. It’s a tree, and it was a gift. It’s functional and will be up for only a few days anyways (according to German tradition, the tree goes up on the 24th and is taken down soon after the new year starts). In the U.S. our fake Christmas tree usually went up weeks before Christmas and, some years, was still standing in our living room when Valentines hearts were given out in February. What’s the big deal about putting up a tree, even an ‘ugly pine’, for a few days? I kept my opinion to myself and only watched and listened to the “tree” drama, as it kept resurfacing over and over again. But I couldn’t help thinking how nice it was that the hunter had offered to present them a tree in the first place. I couldn’t remember ever receiving a Christmas tree as a gift when I was growing up. And I am sure my parents would not have differentiated between a pine, a spruce or some other type of tree.
Well, my father in law sure knew and he seemed the most disappointed. In keeping with the ‘direct’ approach so seemingly favored by Germans, he announced that he would tell his friend what a disappointment the tree was. I thought to myself “What would that serve and why would anyone even say something like that to a friend who gave a gift?” He reasoned that if he didn’t communicate his disappointment, then he would receive another “scheisse” Christmas tree next year. And he announced, conclusively, that he did not want the tree in his house and that he could do without a tree this year. Of course, there was tension in the room, but no one said anything. I kept my mouth shut as well.
Then, on the eve of the 24th, my mother in law suddenly marched into the living room, where my father in law was surfing on his computer, where I was answering texts on my iPhone, and where my husband was on his own laptop answering work emails, and announced “I will not allow this to be the first Christmas without a tree! The tree BETTER be in this house by tomorrow morning so that it can be ready for Christmas!” My mother in law rarely demands anything from us and her sudden and passionate outburst suddenly surprised and shocked us. I dare say, it shocked my father in law the most. She said nothing more, and neither did any of us. Early the next day, my husband’s papa drove to his farmhouse, picked up the tree and brought it home. The Tannenbaum was saved!