The family Christmas tree is finally up, decorated and lit. I have to admit to some Christmases past when I would get just a few drops lit myself. Like Scrooge I would be visited by spirits, only my spirits were more fluid than the old mizer’s and often mixed with eggnog. The spirits would visit during the course of the decorating and the visitation usually consisted of three or more. The next morning I would be visited by more spirits, tortured, malevolent ones pounding from the inside of my skull as if trying a desperate escape. It’s sort of a tradition of dad’s family that goes back generations, one that we’ve discontinued.
We’re later than usual with the tree. That’s because Christmas is coming early this year. Actually it’s not arriving early. It’s on the 25th of December just like every other year, but I took this issue up in my last post so if you need to catch up, you can read about it in Considering Christmas.
Cora and I got the tree late last week. Tree buying is an enduring Christmas tradition but just as with most rituals it’s gone through a few changes over the years. Trees are always sold by the foot. There may be some variations to that rule but I can’t recall ever having run across one. In the past a guy would follow you around with a 12 foot pole marked in 6 inch increments. Once we found a tree to our liking the guy would stand the pole next to the tree and tell you the height and the price.
The guy with the pole has been replaced by price lists posted around the lot. It’s up to you the customer to guess the height of the tree. Once summoned the tree lot guy eyeballs the tree (no more measuring pole) and tells you the price. Figure that it’ll be on the high end. I suppose that you could haggle about the useless 8 inch long naked tip of the tree that juts skyward that you’ll snip off when you get home but I doubt that’ll fly. It’s sort of like buying a roast and paying for all the fat that you’ll have to trim off before you throw it in the oven. Just another way for the retailer to exchange something of no value to anyone, for something of value to everyone, in this case, your money.
One enduring tradition is inflation. Every single, jingle year the price of trees seems to go up. Each year right around Thanksgiving the local news reports that “there’s a scarcity of trees this year,” and you’ll have to pony up more hard earned legal tender for your tannenbaum. It’s often blamed on the weather; either too much rain during the past months or a drought. This begs the question as to why two opposing weather conditions can create the same economic hardship. It’s the tree peddler’s atmospheric version of having your cake and eating it too. My feeling is that the real cause is a drought in the tree company’s bank account over the previous eleven months but that’s just my own cynical Scroogian economic theory.
In recent years the big box home improvement stores and some supermarkets have begun selling trees in cordoned off areas of their parking lots. Cora and I haven’t stooped to buying a Safeway tree. There’s something heretical about buying a few cans of Spam, a frozen pizza, toilet paper and a sixer of Coors Light and then asking the checker, “Oh and can you ring me up a six foot noble fir please?” Some things just have to remain sacred.
Another tradition is the quandary of getting the tree home without leaving it on the highway. It was usually on the buyer to bring some cord and tie the thing on top of the car himself. The drive home always held more anticipation than Christmas morn itself – and not in a good way. I would spend most of my time on the drive home looking in the rear view mirror to make sure that cars weren’t swerving to avoid the tree that had fallen off my car; a tree that I would disavow any knowledge of. Thankfully it never came to that. In recent years it’s become customary for one of the tree lot guys to tie the tree off, giving the customer a small amount of assurance that the tree will arrive home safely. Since we got an old pickup truck we’ve been absolved of that anxiety but just to be sure I secure the tree with a couple of bungee cords. I DO NOT want to be that guy who’s tree caused a five car pileup in my wake.
There were years when buying a tree presented me with another anxiety. Would it fit in the stand? For years we had a stand that was little more than a big green plastic bowl with four eye screws to hold the tree in place. Most years the trunk would slide right into the stand. Tighten the four eye screws and everything was holly jolly. When we moved into a house with a cathedral ceiling the family lobbied for a taller tree which meant the base would be thicker and didn’t always fit neatly into the stand. That meant about an hour of bashing away at the tree with a hatchet, a pruning saw and a string of curses. The family would huddle in the back of the house, the dog would go to the back of her crate and the woman next door would turn to her husband, “His tree isn’t fitting in the stand again this year.” Once the tree had been battered and coerced into the stand the family would sigh, the dog would stick a tentative nose out the crate and the neighbors would share their annual laugh. As for me, I paid a visit to the Christmas spirits.
The tree stand problem was solved during one of our saddest of Christmas seasons. Our daughter Jessica and her husband had just separated and she had moved to an apartment complex that looked nice from the outside but lost its lustre one you drove through the gates. You noticed that the place had seen better days and transients were crawling through a hole in the cyclone fence.
Jess had kids and of course they expected a tree even if she might not have been up for Christmas that year. And so she and I picked up a small tree, the only time I’ve ever been taller than our Christmas tree. Even Jessica was taller than the little waif. We got it to her apartment and found that the tree was actually too small for the bowl. The eye screws were too short to secure the tree so it just leaned and flopped around in the bowl.
I went to the nearby chain hardware store and found the same big bowl. I asked one of the workers, “Do you have any stands for people who want something smaller than a Giant Sequoia in their living room?” That probably wasn’t the most diplomatic way of phrasing it. With an arched eyebrow, a stink eye and whatever patience she had left after a full day of kowtowing to assholes who thought they had clever things to say she answered, “No this is the only one we have.”
“But you sell small trees. What do you tell people who buy small trees?” I asked.
“We suggest that they get some small wooden blocks to use as shims.”
I looked at her incredulously. I was about to offer that I just wanted to hold up a Christmas tree not start a home improvement project, but I decided that I’d about used up the last of her patience along with my mulligan for being hyper-sarcastic.
At Target I found an even BIGGER stand. It was just about the size of our toilet bowl. Sears had the same big bowl. I was about to throw in the towel and just buy a bag of concrete and cement the tree into the plastic bowl when it dawned on me; Pastime Hardware.
Pastime Hardware is a few miles down the highway but it’s well worth the drive when you need something that the home improvement stores don’t deign to carry. It’s the quintessential old school hardware store that is crammed from floor to ceiling, corner to corner and end to end with essentials and gadgets and is staffed by employees who know the difference between a circular saw and a chainsaw. An old school hardware store is everything that the big box stores aren’t, all packed into a building one quarter the size.
Within a minute of walking into Pastime I found a metal stand that transcends the cheap plastic bowls. It’s the tiger tank of tree stands; a stout steel monster that’ll accommodate anything from a sapling to the White House Christmas tree. Jessica’s tree fit neatly in the stand, ready for her and the children to decorate. Happily, that stand and Jessica are safely abiding in the family home. She spent only one Christmas in that apartment.
A few years ago Cora and I toyed with the idea of getting a fake tree. Fake tree technology has come a long way since I was a kid. During the days of my childhood a particular topiary abomination enjoyed a wave of popularity; the aluminium tree. They were horrific looking things, aliens from another yuletide planet. They looked chintzy, tinny, were garishly colored and were probably carcinogenic. I recall them in silver, bright pink or powder blue.
Cora and I walked through a fake forest of ersatz pines in Home Depot considering the pros and cons of an artificial evergreen. The list of positives made a fake tree a tempting option. No more dodging raindrops and tiptoeing around puddles at the tree lot, no more bashing away at the base of the tree, no scrubbing pine sap off my hands with cleanser and alcohol, no more pine needles all over the living room floor and no more fire hazard. All that for a one time cost and the avoidance of the yearly “scarcity” and ensuing inflation. In the end we decided to stay with the real tree. Much of Christmas has become canned and contrived and so in the end we decided to keep this part real. That and if we got a fake tree I’d have to figure out how to wedge it into the overhead that’s already gorged with pool supplies, decorations for various holidays, camping gear and other assorted clutter.
Every now and then Cora and I go to the big Macy’s in San Francisco, battle the seasonal pandemonium and we browse the store’s holiday shop. This is where you find displays of gorgeous trees that are beautifully and professionally decorated, each in its own motif. During our last visit we saw an Italian themed tree, a frou-frou tree decorated all in pink, a cookies for Santa tree, a frosted garden tree and a woodland themed tree. I marvelled at how those retailers can think so far out of the box because we even saw a baby Jesus nativity themed tree. I can’t imagine where they came up with that idea.
While those trees are beautiful and can lend some seasonal style to the living room window they really aren’t for me. As Lynyrd Skynyrd once sang, “I’m a simple kind of man,” and those trees are too sleek and polished for my taste. Our tree is something of an unrefined hodge podge. There’s nothing color coordinated about our tree.
What our tree lacks in style, it more than makes up for with the stories it tells. While we decorate our tree, the grandchildren inspect the ornaments and ask questions. Where did we get it? Why did we get it? We explain that the little paper angels came from a now defunct department store called Bullocks and that Cora and I got them because they were cheap and we didn’t have much money to spend on ornaments. The ornaments that we’ve taken home from our travels inspire stories to the kids about places we’ve been; a fisherman from Massachusetts; an elk and a moose from Jackson, Wyoming; a gator from New Orleans and two bears from Crater Lake. Our dogs are immortalized on our tree. Our children’s first Christmases are commemorated. When the grandchildren ask about the frosted bell I explain that it belonged to their great grandparents and please be careful with it.
There’s a Santa Clara University ornament to commemorate the university that my son and I attended. A Starbucks’ ornament came from our daughter in law who worked there during her college years. There are the ornaments that our son and daughter crafted when they were in grade school. More than sixty years of our family’s life is carefully unpacked every December and hung on our home’s tree.
When it comes to our Christmas trees we can be a fickle lot though. We set aside a special day to get a tree and once at the lot we choose the tree with care. We stage an arboreal beauty contest and carefully inspect a few aspirants, looking for the slightest of flaws. Once our revered holiday guest is in the living room we lovingly dress it up with decorations, carefully choosing just the right spot for the angel ornament or the little dolphin from Mexico or the glass Mickey Mouse. We all have our own favorite ornaments that we insist on hanging ourselves. When it’s all done and looking splendid we take photos of the tree; with the family, with the children, with the dogs and just the tree itself and then we post it all on Facebook.
We love our trees until just after the New Year, when they start to look dowdy and unkempt with drooping, balding branches and little piles of needles at the base. Then we treat it with the same disdain reserved every year for that one relative you hope will never show up on Christmas but who inevitably knocks on the door just in time for cocktails; drunkle Bob, already buzzed and primed to argue politics over the appetizer course and then at the holiday table, three sheets to the wind, rocks back and forth and monopolizes the dinner conversation with incoherent mumbling. Once your tolerance and self restraint have gone the way of the down of a thistle you lead him to the door, give him a little shove and breathe a sigh of relief. That’s what we do with our once exalted and suddenly unwelcome trees. Drag ’em out to the curb and while we scrub pine pitch off our hands we exclaim, “Glad that’s done for another year.”