The Perfect Christmas Tree
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The Perfect Christmas Tree
By Maria Daddino   

As I decorate my tree, my mind always wanders to Christmases past, when little hands helped me hang the very same ornaments ... when my sons’ young eyes glowed like diamonds with the excitement of the season. Sometimes, I go back even further into the recesses of my mind to those long ago days of my childhood in Brooklyn. We didn’t have much back then. There were only a few toys and gifts under the tree, but special memories are not made from things, they are made from love.

Those childhood Christmases were magical because of my Uncle Johnny. He was a carpenter by trade but an artist at heart. Uncle Johnny would spend a week searching for just the right tree at just the right price. He went out every night, coming back empty-handed, until that one special night when he’d call my cousins, Cookie and Jay, and me to join him in his living room, and there “it” was—the perfect tree!

Uncle Johnny spent the next week cutting branches from the back of the tree where they wouldn’t be missed. Then he painstakingly wired, nailed and screwed the cut branches to the trunk of the tree so that there was not one bare spot in the front. Next came the beautiful old ornaments and the silver tinsel, each strand of which was placed individually—and, incidentally, was saved from year to year.

Uncle Johnny and my cousins decorated most of the tree because I was several years younger than them and a lot shorter. But every once in a while Uncle Johnny lifted me high up in his strong arms so that I too could hang a very special ornament. Afterward, the three of us would lie on the living room rug, looking up at what had to be the biggest tree we’d ever seen. The hundreds of old-fashioned light bulbs shined so brightly that they turned the living room into a fairyland, and our young imaginations soared.

Uncle Johnny was a master at creating extraordinary Christmas scenes. He had rolls and rolls of wide, thick cotton that he smooshed and scrunched underneath the tree until the cotton resembled snow-covered mountains. He and Jay worked on “boy” things, like setting up the Lionel train set that circled the tree, then disappeared beneath a “snowy” cotton tunnel. The ski jump came next. Uncle Johnny had fashioned it from wood, and even though the skier more often than not fell off the jump, we all cheered every time he reached the bottom.

While the boys were busy, Cookie and I made small multi-colored yarn dolls. These dolls were for the little chairs and tables Uncle Johnny had made to surround his ice skating rink, a circle of thick glass. “Girl” jobs also included arranging the miniature Christmas trees, greenery and scenery that Uncle Johnny had accumulated over the years. I don’t think at the time my cousins and I realized how fortunate we were to have an “Uncle Johnny,” nor how much these precious Christmas memories would forever affect us as adults.

Uncle Johnny lived into his 92nd year and, even then, he was still like a little kid at Christmas. The only difference was that we celebrated Christmas at my house, and Cookie, Jay and I have been replaced by my three sons.

Uncle Johnny left me on Christmas Eve, and, somehow, it seems very fitting for he will always be in my mind and heart on that day more than any other. I inherited his love of Christmas and treasure and cherish the priceless memories he gave to me.

And each year, when my own tree is finally finished and I sit quietly in my living room admiring its beauty, I always get up and move an ornament or two. Just like Uncle Johnny, I need to make it perfect. And a warm feeling comes over me, for I know that wherever Uncle Johnny is, he is watching over me and smiling as I continue his tradition of “the perfect tree.”

Maria Daddino writes “From Fourth Neck” in the Western Edition of The Southampton Press.

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