A Squirrel in a Surprise Tree

I’m sitting in a corner of the Barnes and Noble cafe sipping a Chestnut and Praline Latte (new!) while B&N staff evict leftover Elves from their shelves to make room for whatever comes next. Arrow-wielding Cupids? As far as corporate holidays go, Christmas has had its run. It’s over. Time to move on to the new year.

Only having been home and immersed in the festive spirit for two full days, I’m not quite ready to part with the Christmas season. I’ve missed all the heartwarming commercials and have had to experience them second-hand through Facebook and dinner conversations.

“Did you see the Planter’s Peanut commercial with the nutcrackers? It’s a party and the nutcracker shows up and he’s all sweaty because he’s surrounded by nuts. He brought a gift and everything.”

I get that Christmas has been commercialized and these ads aren’t the true meaning of Christmas, but they’re a part of the build-up, ABC’s 25 days of Christmas, choosing a tree from the lot, all that good stuff that Egypt desperately lacks. But home has provided these things in generous helpings, and now that I’ve emerged from the two-day whirlwind that is Christmas, I can finally write about it.

Embracing Tradition

After my pleasantly dizzying injection of Christmas in London, I arrived home late at night on the 23rd, the closest I’ve cut it in years. I managed to wait until the week before to check the weather report, which was a good move on my part, since I was greeted with wild headlines:

Heading home for the holidays? Better leave NOW! one news source frantically urged above a map of the US, barely visible beneath a battlefield of storms converging from all directions. Blizzards in the east, heavy rains in the south. I tapped my airport location into the search box and saw a mundane forecast in comparison: humble winds, a chance of a drizzle. Still, it was a taste of the America I know and love, a panic-stricken place always eager to keep people on their toes with a little media-invoked fear.

Our plane descended through a slab of fog and appeared almost immediately on the runway five minutes early.

Unfortunately for my parents, the airline decided to delay half of the passengers’ bags by an hour, my ugly teal monster one of the affected. In the car, we inched through the EZ Pass glimpsing giant airliners suddenly appearing out of the fog and touching down on the runway.

“Dad waited for you to come home to decorate the tree,” Mom said. “He knew that’s exactly what you would want to do when you got off the plane.”

I was too exhausted to be excited about this, but I thought back to a few weeks earlier when my dad had sent me an e-mail before I headed out for an English Christmas party.

“They’re giving away trees for free at the high school,” he had written. “But the catch is, they’re already wrapped, so you don’t see what they look like until you get home. Not much different than usual.”

I’m not sure when it started, but the concept of a Surprise Tree has been in the family for as long as I can remember. TV shows grant entire episode segments to their characters carefully choosing THE Christmas tree, a sturdy pine longing to bear glittery bulbs and wrap itself in sparkly tinsel and blinking lights, heirloom star perched on its head. More daring sorts risk arrest and saw theirs down in local parks or forests. But our family was content to pluck one off the lot, never unwrapped, and bring it home to see what shape it would take once the plastic netting was removed. It felt a little cheap that our tradition was suddenly a town-wide thing.

This I tried to explain at Jamie’s Deputy Head’s Christmas party, an English affair complete with English traditions such as crackers, a concept I enthusiastically shared with Laina one night.

“They pull them apart, and inside you get a crown, a toy, and a joke.”

“Oh, so that’s why British people are always wearing those paper crowns in Christmas movies,” she said.

My English hosts were amused by this lack of knowledge regarding crackers and an absence of Christmas pudding from my American dinner table.

“What traditions do you have?” Ian asked.

I tried to explain the Surprise Tree to a ring of confused faces.

“I don’t get it.”

“You know, you take it home and open it for the first time in your living room. See what’s inside.”

“And what is inside?”

“Oh, it could be anything. One year a moth flew out. There was a squirrel inside it a different year.”

“You Americans are strange.”

I told my parents of this conversation on Christmas Eve when we finished hanging bulbs on the tree.

“Oh, Nicole. Now they’re going to think you come from a crazy family,” Mom admonished. “Why didn’t you tell them about the Christmas pickle?”

I hadn’t thought of that at the time, but in retrospect, that would have sounded just as loopy. I could imagine the conversation.

“We hide a pickle somewhere in the tree and whoever finds it gets luck for the year.”


Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve, I did hide the Christmas pickle in the Surprise Tree, which resembles a stout and ambitious shrub. The branches are so thick and intertwined that it’s impossible to hang an ornament without getting your fingers stuck together with sap. I’d woken up early on Christmas Eve (4AM, the cruel hand of jet lag) but had planned out my mission: Christmas shop from 9-12, make three batches of eggnog once home, bake pecan butterballs post-eggnog, shower for church at 4, decorate tree, spirit one batch of eggnog off to Kacey’s family’s Christmas Eve party.This I managed to pull off with surprising efficiency. 1PM found me whisking egg yolks to the tunes of Bing Crosby, while milk, cream, and cloves simmered on the stove. Moments like these are exactly what call me home for the holidays. Dad sat at the table nearby, the dogs slept on the floor (a rare, quiet moment), and the smell of eggnog and cookie batter warmed the kitchen.After church and tree decorating, I drove to Kacey’s uncle’s house a few towns over, eggnog in tow. Kacey’s family has always been like a second family to me, and last year, they welcomed me to their holiday party with open arms. Still, I don’t like the feeling of gatecrashing a family party.

“You’re not crashing. It’s a friends and family party,” Kacey texted me.

I was the only friend there. But it didn’t matter. We all sat around having delicious food and playing Heads Up, which is a different game entirely when Kacey’s mother is involved (and in the best way possible). We swapped Ireland tales with her uncles before I ducked out early, jet lag sending me to bed at 9.

Christmas Day

Waking up at 4AM is not fun. Nothing is going on and the entire world is asleep, especially on Christmas morning. You lie in bed thinking rapid and unconnected thoughts. I wondered if NORAD was still tracking Santa and if he’d be somewhere over the Midwest by now. I thought about the egg muffins Sally makes for Christmas. I thought about the English breakfast buffet I’d had at the Premier Inn the previous morning. I suddenly had a craving for breakfast beans and eggs. My phone told me that Shoprite would open at 6, and would open the door to beans and egg muffins. Starbucks, my phone swore, opened at 5.I texted my friends in England who were making breakfast. I texted my sister, who was awake for some reason. I still hadn’t seen her since I got home. At 6:30, unable to wait any longer, I got dressed and grabbed the keys.

“Shoprite is closed today,” my mother said. “This is the only day of the year that it’s closed. You won’t find anything open today.”

Stubbornly, I headed out into the heavy rain and drove through flooded parking lots to Shoprite which was, as my mother had proclaimed, closed. Something about this made me happy. Stores shouldn’t be open on Christmas; people should be at home with their families. Still, I couldn’t sleep, so I drove around town in the truck, the roads quiet, the skies dark.I found a few delis that were open, one giving out free coffee, but alas, no beans. I finally made up my mind to use the WiFi at Starbucks – which had a line of caffeine-addicts lingering outside that I was hesitant to join – to text my sister and see if she had ingredients I could use for egg muffins.Two holiday lattes and some highway crossings later, I found myself at my sister’s house, excited to see her and eager to steal her vegetables. Back at home, I whipped up some egg muffins while Dad put the Yule Log on TV. Allison and Anthony arrived a few hours later, and we opened presents after dining on egg muffins (which turned out pretty good).

Egg muffins

Egg muffins

We left for my aunt’s earlier than usual, arriving just before 12:30 for a tasty feast that began at 1: ham, roast beef, potatoes, green beans, corn, sweet potatoes, salad, lasagne. The food is always good at my aunt’s, but the company is better.My uncle performed some old magic tricks for a skeptical audience before we opened gifts. I bought presents for the girls for the first time, and I have to say – it’s pretty exciting to watch kids get excited about presents. Adults politely thank the gift-giver and usually give an amiable show of restrained excitement. Kids, if they get something they actually want, seem genuinely stoked about it. In this case, it was the newest book in the Whatever After series, which is thankfully not about vampires at all (I heard the title and thought of my cousin’s bright and spunky daughters and my heart sank at the idea of vampire literature) but about two kids who travel into fairy tales. Much more suitable.The only downside to Christmas was returning home in a languorous haze, the result of waking up at 4AM and eating too much that afternoon. While my sister and her fiance jetted off to my uncle’s house before hosting a shindig of their own, I crashed on the recliner for a nap, hoping that I’d be more vivacious after an hour.I was not.My dad was having beers with my uncle, and I was stuck watching Elf on TV with a crossword book in my lap.Still, there is much to be grateful for: getting home safely, seeing most of my family, having two eventful days of festivities. Life is good.

Soon-to-be brother-in-law fits in well

Soon-to-be brother-in-law fits in well

Sisterly love

Sisterly love

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