Avoiding the Chainsaw Massacre: Ode to My Fake Tree

For years, the holiday season didn’t start until we hiked deep into the tree farm and cut our tree. There’d be a marathon pre-visit to choose and tag our tree followed up by several swears by the adults when we cut it down. We’d drag it to our non-truck, and bind it up so it didn’t fall, and drive carefully home, so we could enjoy language more colorful than the lights which were painstakingly tested and untangled.

Eventually, the tree would be up, blanketing the house in pine. Nothing beats the experience of the real Christmas tree. Once or twice, we found a tree with a bird’s nest. It was a special treat which now seems just a bit mean. Sorry homeless bird.

Sure, there were some disadvantages to the real tree, such as the spiders, and stepping on pine needles that stood at attention somewhere in the rug. But the tree was the official start and end of the Christmas season. My mom got us an ornament each year, so that by when we moved out, we’d have several to start our own trees. Each ornament has a special story.

I am now grown up and live in my own house. For years, we got a real tree, too. It was something I never compromised. Until…I kept getting sick. Every year at Christmas I got sick. I’d get a nice sinus infection, a raging cold, and I’d be miserable. I figured I made too many cookies, had too much holiday cheer, or maybe I was burning out from the first half of the year of teaching.

“Have you considered your tree?” Mom said. “There’s a lot of mold in a tree.” Turns out she had the same problem. Get rid of the tree? Unthinkable. Inconceivable…

The next year, it happened again. The following year, having noted the coincidence, I conceded to “try” a fake tree for one year. Miracle of miracles, I wasn’t sick. I enjoyed the Yule. I partook in the holiday cheer. I admitted, in public, my mom was right. And I saved a copay or two at the doctors.

Mom made this in 1983.

Mom made this in 1983.

I do miss my real tree, but not the stress of cutting it, hiking it home, and putting it up. We went one step further this year… a three-piece pre-lit tree. It took exactly three minutes to put up and didn’t require one “f” word. That’s the definition of holiday cheer.

This one's from when Rusty was a baby. There's one for his sister Carol next to it.

This one’s from when Rusty was a baby. There’s one for his sister Carol next to it.

I took the ornaments out of the box. I put them on the tree with Declan, and I told the story of each ornament. The “first year” ornaments, Daddy’s special ornaments, the train ornaments, the funny squirrel. The rainbow balsa wood ornament my mom made the year she didn’t have money to buy us our yearly ornaments, and the salt-dough ornaments I’d made in the Great Recession when circumstances were the same for me.

TrainThe ornaments showed Christmases in good times and in bad, and how the true meaning of the holiday always shines through in terms of the love of family, friends, and the miracles God and the universe bestow upon us, presents notwithstanding, if we are attentive enough to listen. Turns out, the Christmases with the least presents have the most blessings of them all.

Dough ornamentOur ornaments, this year, are on a fake tree, where they will be every year until they become someone else’s ornaments, for them to decide. Our tree is beautiful because each little bangle and ball holds a memory of love, even if they are hung on PVC branches made in China and not a home-grown Douglas Fir. I’ll look at them and smile. Declan will take them down when I’m pretending not to look and enjoy them. And then I’ll sneak up behind him and tell him the story of each one one more time.




Putting up the #$%$^ Tree. A Holiday Tradition of Love

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 5.43.08 AMEach year, we put up the Christmas tree. Each year, we have the tree fight. It has been this way since the dawn of mankind.  When I was little, we’d tag the tree and later in the season, we’d cut the tree down. Some years our tree would be there, others it would not–when you live in a low-crime area, tag switching is the crime of the century, but somehow you make a Plan B and succeed in finding another “perfect tree” which you drag through the forest instead.

For most of my childhood, the Great Annual Tree Fight occurred somewhere between the putting up the tree, which required several sharp tools and the correct combination of swears, and the unstringing of the lights. Lights are no small matter.  First you have to find them.  That requires at least one curse.  Then you have to untangle them, because no matter what you do to put them back, the mischievous little things always self-tangle in the off-season–light sex, I suppose.  They come out of the wrong box in such a tangled mass that Clark Griswold would be reduced to tears.

The lights we had growing up weren’t any of these new fancy LED lights that just seem to work. They were big colored bulbs–that took considerable time to prepare.  We had to test the string and find all the lamps that were defective. Some of the strings were series circuits, meaning that if one light was out, so was the whole string, making it nearly impossible to find the culprit without testing each and every bulb. That whole operation, from untangling to testing, took about seven or eight swears.

Getting the tree in the stand was even worse.  For most of my childhood, we lived in a regular house. That meant there was a standard-sized door and normal-height ceiling restricting the size of the tree. We never obeyed these constraints when choosing the tree–they all look miniature out in nature.  We’d bring that sucker right up to the door and realize…again…that the tree was far too big, that we accidentally took the one tagged for Rockefeller Center. That meant another eight or nine swears.  Once we shoved the tree through the door and discovered it was too tall we needed an additional swear or two to finish getting it up.

One year, we lived in a Victorian in Eastern Connecticut. Victorians have tons of room. We were able to use the double front doors to get the tree in, but it was so big that it kept falling over.  After going a few swears over the usual limit, my dad and his tree-standing companion–I actually don’t remember if it was his friend the priest or someone else–found a sledge hammer and railroad spike and banged it right into the floor.  Thanks to the sturdy construction of antique wrought iron spikes and 19th century hard wood floors that tree was officially reinforced.

Growing up, I thought this was how tree trimmings were supposed to go, so when I got big, it was no different.  My husband got upset at the lights, the size of the tree, and the whining in the room, and I got stressed. One year, they pulled out my circular saw and hacked far too much off the too-tall tree, gumming up it up to the break-point and creating a four-foot tree. The Charlie Brown tree.  And when it was up, everyone was only allowed to say, “Oh, it’s beautiful.”

One year, we made a monumental discovery–my tree allergy. Every year at Christmas, I’d get sick. Like clockwork.  I always attributed my illness to the fact that I work myself into the ground, and that I needed a bit of a rest–that the school year/job/life was getting to me.  My mom said, “Maybe you’re allergic to the tree.”  Sure enough, when I reflected upon my odd list of allergies pine was on them.  So, it stands to reason that if I can’t have pine candles, sprays, scents…maybe a big pine tree in the middle of my living room was to blame. I’ll never be a rocket scientist, that’s for sure.

So, we got a fake tree. This presented a whole new set of problems, including the “you didn’t fluff the branches” discussion. I never fluff the branches right. I’m not orderly and symmetrical.  I never even notice the lack of fluff. I just put the tree up and decorate.

This year, we got a pre-lit tree. Our old tree got moldy during the Great Flood and didn’t make move to the forest.  Ironic that we bought a new fake tree while living in the middle of a forest, but that’s the way it goes when you’re too stupid to know that a large pine tree stops you from breathing if you’re allergic to pine. And brings in spiders, by the way…

I put up the tree myself. I waited until I was alone so I could get New Tree up before anyone got to the tree fight stage. I know, it’s tradition, but I wanted to skip the argument and go right to the eggnog.  The boy was asleep on the couch, and Rusty was out.

The directions looked simple. Pictures of sections marked 1,2, and 3. The opposite of building the greenhouse last year. In three minutes the entire thing was up. No swears, no tree fight–even for someone too dumb to realize that having a pine allergy meant that she couldn’t have a tree. Instant Christmas cheer.

When we were done with all the decorations, only two ornaments smashed, we sat down and watched it twinkle.

“Hey,” said Rusty, “You forgot to fluff the branches.”

Yes, indeed. It’s perfect.

[image: clarkgriswoldcollection.com]