Hang the Tinsel With Care

When decorating the Christmas tree turns into an act of rebellion—and a favorite family story

As a kid, putting up ornaments felt more like a tedious chore than a fun Christmas tradition, but the final stage—hanging pieces of tinsel—meant I could finally release my wild side by letting the tinsel fly. I grabbed handfuls of the metallic strings and flung them on the tree as if I were throwing a snowball. Sometimes I even closed my eyes, delighted to discover where the tinsel would land (hint: often on the floor).

When the box was all gone, I’d stand back to admire my shimmering display. I actually prefer how the tree looks this way, reminiscent of a lustrous ’80s prom dress. But mom has always been quick to edit my work by detangling the pieces and then gracefully threading them on the tree one-by-one as if she were hanging Rumpelstiltskin’s delicate golden strands, spun from straw. While doing so (and at this point, I would retreat to the couch with mom’s homemade chocolate fudge), mom would tell me a story:

Her father, who passed away from lung cancer when she was just 6 years old, was a strict World War II veteran. My mom and her four siblings would never dare to cross him. As was more common during the early ’60s, he expected his wife to keep an immaculate household, and the Christmas tree was no exception. This meant absolutely no tinsel clumps. I imagined my grandfather with a scowl, marching around the tree as he meticulously inspected it, while his wife and kids stood nervously awaiting his approval.

What began as pure laziness turned into a customary act of rebellion. Year after year, I’d throw globs of tinsel on the tree and mom would cheerfully fix it. This gave her a chance to talk about her father’s high Christmas tree standards. I’d pretend like it was the first time I ever heard the tale.

My mom had a very short time to get to know her father—her memories are few. Though I never got to meet him, we continue to share this memory of him. I think about how angry he’d be at my carelessly clumped tinsel, and how pleased he’d be to know that my mom continues to honor his wishes by separating the strands.

Our family has lost more loved ones since my grandpa, but whether it’s tinsel, a music box, an ornament, or photo, I’m thankful for the holidays to remind me that family is the best gift, and that loved ones can be remembered through the simplest of traditions. I look forward to letting my future children throw globs of tinsel on the tree, and though I won’t correct their work, I will tell them my favorite Christmas story about my grandfather’s affinity for perfectly strung tinsel.

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