When I was a child, my family celebrated Christmas by hauling a freshly cut 18-foot pine tree into the house. If that sounds magical, let me assure you that it was not. Because magic did not help my father drag that tree through our patio windows and tie it to the second floor banister.
Unlike most elaborate household holiday displays, our tradition was not the product of wealth and eccentricity. Our family never had any interest in one-upping the neighbors with excessive lawn ornaments or industrial-grade gas grills. Our house simply had uncharacteristically high ceilings and my father was always looking for an excuse to use his chainsaw. Besides, if we wanted to bother the people next door, we would have just set fire to a pile of leaves in our backyard. Like we always did.
Needless to say, my mother hated our big tree tradition. Every year, she would urge my father to stop at the local grocery store and look at temporary holiday stand set up in the parking lot. She claimed that she had seen a 14-foot pine there the day before, but even I had a hard time believing that and I was eight.
“We’re not doing that,” my father scoffed. “We’re getting a tree the way we always do.”
And by “the way we always do” he meant that the four of us – he, my mother, my older brother, Tom, and I – would pack into our SUV, a now-discontinued model aptly named the Dodge Raider, and drive aimlessly through the woods, making ever-wider concentric circles looking for “the perfect tree.” To keep things classy, we listened to The Nutcracker.
My father, no doubt enjoying his captive audience, took issue with most every tree we saw. “Too tall… Too short… Too scrawny… Crooked, browning and “full of bugs.” And so it went for hours until my father inevitably got hungry and decided to wrap the whole thing up.
“That’s the one!” he decided, pointing to a 18-foot tree several yards away.
We shrugged. The tree looked exactly like all the others we had been driving past for the last few hours.
He smacked the steering wheel for effect. “That’s a Blue Spruce!” He said this like it meant something to the rest of us.
We watched as he walked over to the tree, circled it several times on foot then knelt to peer into its branches. He came back to the car shaking his head in disappointment.
“Well it’s not a Blue Spruce,” he said as he draped himself through the passenger window. “It just looks like one. And one side is brown. But there’s no bugs and not too much sap. I think it’s the best we’re gonna do.”
And that’s what we settled on. A mostly sapless, possibly-diseased, knock-off Blue Spruce that my mother described through clenched teeth as, “Bigger than last year’s, which was already too big.” It was a complaint that went conveniently unheard over the whine of my father’s gas-powered chainsaw.
As a child, I had no experience in felling a tree and it was fairly clear that my dad didn’t either. The first clue was that my mother would insist on parking the car at least 40 feet away. The second was that my father stopped sawing every few seconds and tried to push the trunk over.
“Not movin’,” he’d announce, before setting back to sawing.
To pass the time, I pretended to be a newscaster. Holding a small pine branch like a microphone, I stared into the camcorder that my brother was holding and delivered live updates on our progress until my father, clearly annoyed by my commentary (as people often are when they find themselves to be the subject of hard-hitting journalism) gave me a hand ax with the suggestion that I “make myself useful.” It was a ludicrous thing to say for many reasons not the least of which being that it’s practically impossible for an eight-year old to ever be useful.
But I tried. Weighing all of 50 pounds, I tossed aside my make-believe microphone and swung the ax like a baseball bat, attempting to clear the heavy braches near the base of the trunk. Tom, who was 12 and might have been better suited for this job, continued to stand by the car, his sole responsibility being to hold a coil of rope that no one would need for another hour. Only one of us was praised for being helpful and “quiet”, which I thought unfair since Tom’s task could hardly inspire him to scream “Tomahawk chop!” at regular intervals.
There is no graceful way to load a 20-foot tree onto the roof of an SUV and I’m delighted to report that our family didn’t even try to find one. Once my father had managed to knock the spruce to the ground, he simply rolled it towards the car and propped it against the doors. Then, in a maneuver that was nothing short of herculean, he took the base of the trunk, raised it above his head and tossed it onto our luggage rack, his only instructions to my mother as she stood of the other side being to “Hit it back on,” in the event it rolled off the roof – which, of course, it inevitably did. My mother, having common sense, did nothing of the sort, choosing instead to step out of the way as the 200-pound tree coming her way.
My father sighed and shook his head. “Tom!” he yelled. “Get on the roof!!”
This did not sit well with me. If anyone was going to climb on top of the car, I thought it should be me, even if it involved catching a pine tree five times my size. As usual, my pleas to do something dangerous were ignored and I watched as my 12-year-old brother wrangled the tree onto the car and tied it with a piece of discarded clothesline with the speed and deftness of an Eagle Scout in the making.
On our way home, other drivers we passed on the road would honk, wave or otherwise signal that there was a 18-foot tree strapped to the roof of our car. In response, my father nodded amicably, as if to say, “I know. I put it there.” Meanwhile, my mother buried her face in her hands, no doubt dreading the second act of the circus that awaited us at home. If there was one bright spot up until this point, it was that the day’s events took place outdoors. Knock a tree over in the forest and it’s a mere inconvenience. Do it in the house and the curio cabinet will surely pay the price.
Of course, that assumed my father could even get the tree in the house in the first place. The height was a challenge, but the real problem was the width, as the lower branches of a decade-old pine don’t have a tremendous amount of flexibility to them. They won’t, for instance, squeeze through a standard doorframe half their size, and come out on the other side no worse for the wear. Our family knew this first-hand because we did it the year before with the end result being that our tree looked like it was wearing a pair of capri pants.
Never one to make the same mistakes twice, my father set to finding new ones. With the tree resting against a picnic table in the backyard, he removed several patio windows thinking that their extra width would be more useful than the height of the door. It made perfect sense, but for one small problem: you can’t walk through a window. Besides, the windows still weren’t wide enough to fit the entire tree, which left my father no choice but to hold the trunk like a battering ram, take a running start through the backyard and leap through the window with the tree tucked under his arm.
That didn’t work. Not the first time nor the three that followed. With his frustration mounting, my mother and I retreated to the kitchen and waited for what felt like hours, until we heard the unmistakable sound of a 20-foot tree being dragged across our parquet floors.
“I got it in the house,” he said when we walking into the living room. As though we could have missed the 20-foot pine lying in the middle of it.
“I’m going to be vacuuming pine needles until Easter,” my mother complained. “And don’t get sap on the rug.”
Neither of those complaints seemed worth worrying about given the circumstances. In fact, if she had any sense at all, she would have skipped right over all that and instead said, “Don’t you dare ask an 8-year-old to help hold the trunk of that tree while you go upstairs and wire it to the handle of a storm window.” Because that’s exactly what my father did. And after a lot of fancy footwork and a few close calls with several light fixtures, he got the tree situated – which is to say he got it screwed into an industrial-size stand and wired between a handrail and a second-floor door handle.
To celebrate surviving this ordeal, our family decided to tempt fate further by combining a 30-foot ladder, a few dozen glass ornaments and two children who lacked basic coordination. We called it “decorating.”
For the next hour, our family decked the tree with hundreds of lights and ornaments, all accumulated over the past three decades from clearance tables, yard sales and relatives’ cast offs. Most years, I’d lobby for tinsel, as it was shiny. But my mother dismissed the idea immediately, claiming it was yet another thing that would get on the rug. My father sided with her as if to prove that he had been listening all along. As a workaround, I emptied half the contents of my jewelry box on the low-hanging branches.
“It’s like garland,” I said to my brother as I draped a beaded necklace across a bough. The look I shot him afterwards said, “Just try and stop me.”
Several hours later, after all the lights were strung and the ornaments hung, my father used a homemade wooden staff to angle our tree topper – a paper cutout of baby Jesus that my brother colored and glued to an old toilet paper roll at least five years prior – onto the peak of the tree. The masterpiece complete, my mother would turn out all the other lights in the house, command us to sit at the dining room table and not say a single word.
“Watch the tree in peace,” she said, which was perhaps her way of offering thanks to both God and nature that none of us died that day. “It looks nice,” she added hastily.
“It hurts my eyes,” I replied. And I meant that in the literal sense. The tree had no less than ten sets of blinking lights, each flashing to its own senseless rhythm as if to better showcase our collection of mismatched plastic candy canes and several platoons of toy soldiers fashioned out of clothespins. The tree leaned precariously towards the railing, the brown spot not completely hidden in the corner. There were pine needles strewn across the floor and table, and halfway up the steps. The only way the tree could have made a bigger mess was if it had a raccoon living in it – which, at one point, it might have.
Years later, all of us, even my father, would concede that this tradition was risky and ill-conceived – or as I like to put it, “Really asking for it.” The trees we picked were too big for an ordinary house and they never should have been cut down in the first place. They belonged in the forest and we did not.
What we should have done is bought the ten-foot tree that my mother had suggested, set it up in an hour and spent the rest of our time arguing about the tinsel. But where’s the tradition in that?