’Twas the Fight Before Christmas

When it came to decorating the tree, my late husband and I didn’t exactly see eye-to eye

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On my eighth date with Alberto, I married him. I was a 30-year-old publicist from Los Angeles and he was a New York ad man who was seven years my senior. I knew his birthday and middle name, but not that his Cuban family always opened gifts on Christmas Eve — Noche Buena — and flew somewhere tropical or arctic on Christmas Day.

WebHe didn’t realize I never opened gifts until December 25, or that I came with three decades of Christmas ornaments. Throughout my childhood, our family made pom-pom snowmen with top hats, pandas skiing on popsicle sticks and stenciled our names on plastic apples. As we grew up, the ornaments became store-bought, most of them commemorating a new hobby or milestone.

During my first December with Alberto in 2005, I proudly hauled out my boxes of ornaments. From the couch, he raised an eyebrow as my sea of mementos crept across the dining table.

“You’re putting all those up?” he asked.

“They’ll fit! It’s a big tree.”


The ornament Alberto bought Tré on their first Christmas together.

He crossed the room and examined a badly painted dough figure in the hollow of a walnut. “Seriously?” he said.

“That’s the first ornament I ever made,” I squealed. “I was, like, three!”

He shook his head, laughed and went back to the TV remote.

“Wait — Alberto? You’re not participating?”

“Um, no. This is your thing.”

I was more than a little devastated. I hadn’t yet realized that everything in a marriage isn’t met with mutual enthusiasm, so I decorated the tree with a pout on my face. And did a shot of tequila in the kitchen.

Alberto grimaced on Noche Buena when he unwrapped no less than six ornaments from our respective families and me. But then he handed me a box that contained a flaming, Mexican-style heart ornament decorated with the words “I Love You.”

His acknowledgment of my silly tradition was gesture enough for me. The following year, I dressed the tree on an early December night while he worked late: no pouting, no shots.

As we drove back from Jersey with an evergreen on our convertible for Christmas No. 3, he announced that it would only be fair if we took turns with the Christmas-tree theme every other year.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means that this year, we continue your little Craft Land Adventure. But next year, we do a monochromatic tree. The lights, the ornaments, everything. I’m thinking white or silver.”

“Does this mean you’ll actually help me decorate?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? I will art-direct that tree!”

When Christmas No. 4 was within sight, I reminded him about the monochromatic tree.

“Right,” he said. “We need to do that.”

The second weekend in December, I mentioned it again.

“Honey,” he smiled, “how would you feel about not getting a tree this year? I mean, we’re leaving for Canada in 10 days and then we’ll just have to pack everything away when we get back . . .”

I didn’t interrupt to say that, actually, I would have to pack everything away when we got back. Instead, I agreed: Not getting a tree sounded practical.

I did not give him an ornament that year. He didn’t get me one either. As we celebrated Christmas 2008 from our hotel suite in Montreal, neither of us gave it a second thought. We assumed there were years of art-directed trees ahead of us, but a few months after our ornament-free Christmas in Montreal, Alberto died of a sudden heart attack at 40.

In 2009 and 2010, I was a grief mess who couldn’t be bothered with doing dishes, let alone a tree with ornaments. I escaped to Brazil and Italy, where I did plenty of pouting and even more shots. But for the last two Christmases, I’ve indulged in the Craft Land Adventure. I’ve found that the mementos from Christmases past no longer make me squeal with delight; there’s just a lot of crying and sighing.

So for next year, I’m entertaining the idea of that monochromatic tree: lights, ornaments, everything. I’m thinking white or silver.

Tré Miller Rodríguez is the author of “Splitting the Difference: A Heart-Shaped Memoir” and the popular Tumblr WhiteElephantInTheRoom.com. She is an award-winning copywriter whose essays have appeared in The New York Times, Manhattan Magazine and on the Huffington Post.

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