Maybe you won’t think me a terrible father for those Decembers, not many years ago, when I might briefly wish for the serenity of decorating a Christmas tree without kids.
As a bachelor, I could trim the tree as I wanted. As a newlywed, I learned — I think quickly— to decorate each year’s fir or pine as my wife preferred.
But in the Christmases when we were only two, trimming the tree, whatever its compromises, was still touched by romance. To honor the first yuletide of our marriage, we hung a bright red heart of glass from a center branch.
Soon, another Christmas found us with an infant daughter. Holding her while I strung the lights, I had no free hand to adjust my pants as I bent to reach a lower limb. Only later, after reviewing the home movie we had sent to in-laws, did I discover that I had mooned my extended family. The era of holiday romance had ended.
Two Christmases later, our daughter was walking on her own, and exploring, too. A loud crash led us to the box of ornaments, where she stood with the shattered glass heart at her feet. We swept it into the dustpan, grateful that although a memento of marriage was in pieces, our little girl was whole.
With the arrival of a son, sibling rivalry became as much a fixture of decorating as the wreaths and the manger. We brokered endless arguments about who should hang each ornament, and where. As with so many diplomatic disputes, the haggling was over a tiny piece of territory. Neither of our pint-sized helpers could reach past the lower branches. In those years, the finished tree looked as if we had overturned an hourglass and let everything drop to the bottom.
As I watched my less-than-perfect kids deck the halls for Christmas, they were, in turn, reminded that I was less than perfect, too. While screwing the tree into the stand on the porch each year, I sometimes used language that was not in keeping with the sacred spirit of the season, but I comforted myself with the thought that I was outside and out of earshot.
Some years, as if working a medieval instrument of torture, I would make a final twist of the tree stand and rise to discover an audience of young ones who had obtained front-row seats for the R-rated feature.
It was enough to make me momentarily long for the days of decorating minus youngsters, a desire that this December was more or less fulfilled.
Our daughter has her own life in college now, and our son boards at a high school three hours away. She stopped by briefly to help a couple of weekends ago, but for the most part, my wife and I, for the first time in years, decorated the tree alone.
And now, in these nights by myself before the tree, I have the same wish as any parent who has been liberated from his children.
I sit beneath the lights and wait for the kids to return.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.