This First Person column is written by Claire Biddiscombe who lives in Ottawa with her cat. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I bought my first Christmas tree — three feet tall, pre-lit — for $9.99 at a Canadian Tire in Ottawa. It was mid-December 2009, and it had become clear that, for the first time in my life, I was not going to get home to my family for Christmas.
It had been half a year of slow unravelling. I graduated from university in the spring with a job already lined up. In the months since, my parents had separated. I left the job for another opportunity that evaporated upon closer inspection. It was November. Depressed and embarrassed, I moved from Guelph, Ont., back to Ottawa to live with my boyfriend, and took up a seasonal retail job at a big box store that played Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s Christmas album on repeat.
At some point, I decided I wanted a Christmas tree. My family had always had a tree, hung with ornaments lovingly collected over the years. People who had their lives together had Christmas trees, I thought.
I put the tree up in the living room of the house where I was staying. I decorated it with silver tinsel garland, jingle bell ornaments in red and green, and tiny stockings that I knitted. It wasn’t much, but it was mine.
After Christmas, I packed up the tree and ornaments. Several months later, they came with me to Calgary, jammed into the backseat footwell of my car. And then again when I left Calgary for St. John’s, St. John’s for the U.K., moved back to Newfoundland and Labrador and then left for Ottawa, again. Along the way, I changed apartments, careers and relationships.
The increasingly battered tree went up every Christmas, except for the year in the U.K., because even I have my limits with shipping costs. People gifted me with decorations: a terracotta star glazed a beautiful blue from one of my first tutoring clients; a glass of wine in pewter and red enamel from my mother with whom I have shared many glasses. I also bought tree ornaments as souvenirs of places I visited.
An Icelandic “Yule Lad” elf reminds me of wandering the streets of Reykjavík between Christmas and the New Year. A wooden puffin conjures memories of a road trip to the Bonavista peninsula of Newfoundland with a beloved aunt. Putting up the tree became my time each December to reflect on the years that had passed, and the progress that I’d made. It was a tradition of my own, a festive constant through a decade of uncertainty as a nomadic millennial.
In 2019, my attempt to put down roots in Ottawa began to pay off. I moved into my current apartment, and got my first permanent teaching job. I also adopted a cat.
Emilie the cat has a sweet face and a lot of attitude. I had seen enough videos of cats interacting with Christmas trees to be cautious. At first, I wedged the tree into a corner and hung a single jingle bell from a low branch. I sat back and watched as Emilie moved to the tree like a heat-seeking missile and immediately began batting at the bell.
I posted on Facebook, asking friends how they kept their cats out of their trees. Someone responded, “You don’t.” That didn’t stop me from trying. The next two Christmases were a parade of orange peels, essential oils, Vicks VapoRub, tinfoil, barriers, spray bottles of water, loud noises, and repeated, forceful exclamations of “Emilie! Get away!”
None of this stopped darling Emilie from regarding the tree as her own personal toy display. On a good day, I would wake up to a couple of ornaments on the floor. On bad days, the entire tree was toppled over. I hit a point each year where I would give up, move the most fragile ornaments — like the vintage glass balls handed down from my stepmother — to the highest branches, let nature take its course, and put the tree away as soon as possible.
This past January, I threw away the dilapidated tree.
When I began scouring flyers and websites for a replacement, I discovered that small trees go for about $50 on sale these days. I also noticed that I was giving serious thought to cat safety — would this narrow base make the tree easier to knock over? Would these fibre optic needles be safe if she bit them?
Finally, it dawned on me that maybe the whole idea of a “tree” had outlived its usefulness for me. I am no longer a frightened 22-year-old, desperately trying to anchor myself in the world by imitating others who have the lives I wish for. I have my own, rich life, filled with experiences, happy memories and people. I also have a small, furry someone who counts on me to make the best decisions for both of us.
In this case, I decided to keep the parts of my tradition that held the most meaning, and update the rest. I’m OK with letting some things go now that I have bigger, more important things to hold on to.
So I went to a different Canadian Tire. I bought a couple of artificial evergreen garlands, some strings of battery-operated lights, and adhesive hooks. This year, the jingle bells, the star, the puffin, and all of my other memories are displayed on evergreen boughs, but hanging high on my walls, safely out of cat reach.
Emilie is intrigued by the new toy display, but — so far — has been content to watch from the ground.
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