How an Artificial Christmas Tree Revived an Old-World Family Tradition

A writer reflects on a sacred symbol of continuity.

Illustration by Bambi Ramsey

For some families, Christmastime is about the gatherings, feasts and gifts. For ours, it’s all about the tree. 

The tradition originated with my German-immigrant grandmother, who used to make all of us kids stand in front of her Christmas tree each year and sing O Tannenbaum before we were allowed to open presents. I dreaded the anxiety-inducing routine—usually hiding behind a sibling or cousin—but it imbued me with something positive, even if I didn’t realize it until much later in life. 

For my grandmother, the tree held deep meaning. As a preteen, she fled Nazi Germany with her Christian, nonconforming family after her mother was threatened for refusing to send her to Hitler Youth. Although my grandmother left her native country for a new life in New Jersey, the tradition of having a Christmas tree was something she always kept to remind her of happier times back home. 

While the decades rolled by and things changed, the tree remained a constant. It was a link between the Old World and New Jersey, from one generation to the next. It meant what all evergreens do: wisdom, strength and longevity.

During my childhood, my immediate family had the same artificial tree for more than three decades. I thought I would do the same when I got married, but when I went through a divorce in 2014 and moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my then 3-year-old daughter, I didn’t have the space to keep our tree. I left it behind, and with so many other pressing issues a single parent faces, I couldn’t give it more thought. 

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When Christmas came around again, my daughter and I bought a miniature tree. We placed it on a side table to give it some height and decorated it with tiny ornaments and garland. After four years of using the tree, it hadn’t dawned on me that it might look sad or ridiculous to someone else—until Stephen, whom I’d been dating for a few months, visited and couldn’t help chuckling at the sight of it. Later, he called to tell me, “I want to take you two to get an actual-size tree.” At first, I refused. It was too extravagant, and “what would happen to the tree if we broke up?” I asked him. He laughed again.

A few nights later, Stephen took my daughter and me to Backyard Living in Ridgewood. The store looked like Christmas, with rows of artificial trees to choose from. “Pick one,” said Stephen. 

And then it hit me. This was continuity. This was us adding another link to the chain. I did everything I could to hold back the tears as my daughter, almost 8 years old by that point, danced around and asked me if we really could pick any tree we wanted. She chose a 6-foot, pre-lit, traditional green model, and that year, the three of us decorated it together. 

A few weeks later, Stephen proposed. We moved into a house with enough space for us and the tree, and we’ve been celebrating around it every year since. 

Amanda Staab is a New Jersey native and writer who loves “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole.

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