My dad was always the one to put the old figure of Kris Kringle on top of the tree. This was the last step in trimming the tree, the prelude to the grand lighting up finale. Through memory’s lens I can see his movements, gesture by gesture. He unwraps the ornament from its shroud of tissue paper, hefts it in his hand, holds it for us to see then looks consideringly at the tree as if there were anyplace to put Kris Kringle other than the top spiking tip.
He walks over, reaches up, and gently places it, steps back, nods. “OK, lights on,“ he says and I crouch behind the tree touching plug to receptacle then hurry to join the collective “ahh…” of satisfaction. Kris Kringle, he’d tell us, was on his tree when he was a boy. He told us this every year and I’d imagine him, dressed in the short pants and high top boots of his childhood, watching as his father crowned the tree.
When I was a teenager I liked to stay up alone on the night we trimmed the tree, just sitting quietly at the edge of its radiance, moved by something I didn’t quite understand and couldn’t put words to. Kris Kringle knows. He’s huddled inside a hooded, snow covered coat; his arms are clasped in front of him, hands shoved inside the sleeves to stay warm. He clutches a bit of greenery in the crook of one elbow. His face is dour and fierce. “Yes,” he says, “this is the dark season.”
He sits on top of my tree now and I too carefully unwrap him, heft him, consider the tree, and gently settle him in place. I once read an essay about the solstice that said we put ornaments on trees to commemorate the dead. I gather friends to trim the tree. They admire Kris Kringle’s antiquity but can’t appreciate the shadows and ghosts that hover around him, the echoes that fall away from my gesture as I reach up, my father’s arm reaching up and his father’s before him.
“It’s time for the lights,” I say once Kris is in place. I go to the window to lower the blinds against the cold early dusk. Outside the garden lies dormant and stiff under its blanket of leaves. In the dark room I crouch behind the tree, touch plug to receptacle, and “ahh…” we exclaim, wondrously, reverently, touched once again by this reminder of life, its green smell, its host of ornaments, its fiery light.