The first Christmas tree I can recall is bright and shiny, fat and colorful. A small child’s dream. It made it easy for me to believe in Santa Claus. And then?
“Hold it straight and don’t move, dammit!” my father cusses as he lies under the tree, trying to twist in the dull screws of the tree stand. Eight-year-old me is smashed tight against the wall, my arms shaking from holding the tree while the sharp points of pine needles pinch against me.
“OK, stay there for a minute,” Dad instructs as he scrunches out, gets up and stands back for a good look with my mom.
“It’s still crooked on the right,” she tells him.
“Stay back there, son,” he commands, and crouches back down for Round 2, as I shake and itch and learn to endure a new holiday tradition of torture.
Christmas trees. Once a year we invite them into our homes for a holiday visit. But what do we even know about them?
I’m a 50-year-old man and have a half century of experience with the iconic evergreen. I’ve seen them come and go, changing like chameleons with new eras. Today, at last, I possess serious Christmas tree game. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
My earliest experiences with Christmas trees began with the family car ride. The weekend after Thanksgiving, the parking lots of every gas station, grocery store, church and school in Cuyahoga Falls turned into Christmas-tree stores. Soon, my mom led the family on a quest for a tree that was “full and even.” After a long search, crunching through snow and warming our hands against wood-burning barrels, we’d eventually have Mom’s perfect tree strapped to the top of our Chevy for the trip home.
We’d get home, and Dad would unwind a mile of Christmas lights around the living room floor, removing every bulb, one by one, trying to find the deadbeat that kept the whole string from lighting. My sisters and I would go through the twisted wires and chipped ornaments of Christmas past, preparing to decorate our new guest.
“Don’t put that there — that’s too close!”
“It’s the wrong color!”
“You think you know everything!”
“Why don’t you shut up!”
“You shut up!”
“Why don’t you all shut up?”
That was the typical family conversation as we dressed and destroyed the moment. We were nowhere close to jolly, until the smell of Mom’s baking in the kitchen invited a calm. Her cookies and cocoa eventually coaxed us into surrender to the holiday spirit. We actually became, in those moments, the warm, happy, cohesive unit we rarely ever were.
"It looks so real! Don’t you think it looks real, kids?” Mom gushes as my siblings and I gawk at the new tree Dad has just finished assembling.
“Yeah, Mom — it really looks real,” we agree, as Coco, our pet poodle, walks over, sniffs … and lifts his hind leg.
For many years, our tree came from a box. Falling needles, clogged vacuums and Dad’s cursing convinced my mother to embrace the modernization of the ’60s and go artificial. Our trip to the tree lot became my trip up to the 2-foot crawl space above the garage ceiling. The smell of must and old cardboard replaced fresh-cut pine and woodsmoke as I cracked my head and elbows maneuvering the box down to Dad’s outstretched arms.
Moments later, its contents were emptied onto the living-room floor, and we slowly pieced together the Frankenstein monster, seemingly made of broomsticks and green toilet brushes, that was our family’s Christmas tree.
Mom loved it. My sisters did, too. I got no vote, and Dad’s only complaint was he missed the smell of real tree. So Mom, hip to the new era of fake, purchased a can of aerosol pine spray from AandP.
For my parents, this tree made sense. Tidy and easy, it became the new tradition in our home. As long as I lived there, my Christmases smelled like pine-scented bathroom freshener.
"I want my kids to have a living tree,” I declare. “I want Christmas to be a real, natural experience for them like it was for me.”
I grew up and got married. My wife preferred the box. But a new baby in the house and a fevered Christmas spirit made me stupid. With the zeal of an addict, I pushed and conned my wife to go back to nature.
We went natural, all right, buying a living tree with a ball of roots so heavy it broke the back shocks of my 1981 Chevette. Once home, and in the house, its big burlapped bottom made it too big to stand. I had to lop off the top to get it set up in the room. Without the top, it looked fat and boxy. When decorated with an angel crown that made it look like an ironic head, the tree became a contender for a role in a Tim Burton horror flick.
The next year, my back-to-nature fervor tempered down to a cut tree. With it returned the needle and vacuum complaints. So after that, it was back to the box.
Several seasons later, there was a divorce. I ended up with the house and kid … and she took the box.
"Is that the little tree from the back yard?” asks Adam, my 10-year-old son, who’s hoping for an electric guitar.
He surveys the pathetic scraggle of pine lying on the living-room floor.
“Yeah,” is my sheepish reply.
He steps slowly around my victim as though examining a dead animal in the highway. “That’s gonna be our Christmas tree this year?”
“Well, Santa needs to save money,” I mutter.
He rolls his eyes and laughs. “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”
Three strings of blinking Dollar Store lights and some old spray-painted pine cones hung with fishing line provided the funk for our little misfit tree.
A week later, an electric Fender guitar from a frazzled Santa sat under the tree, giving it some flash, fulfilling a 10-year-old’s dream, and enabling me to successfully rock-and-roll my way through a very stressful paycheck-to-paycheck Christmas.
"It looks so real. Don’t you think it looks real?” my wife asks.
In time I remarried, and life got good again.
My blended family has a box tree that springs to life with umbrellalike ease. I don’t have to do much anymore. Mom, Sis and Bro all love setting up the green monster. Last Christmas, I just sat on the couch and watched them talk and decorate.
As they reminisce, I smile, thinking another tree has moved in and gotten me again. And then I laugh out loud.
These bulky, invasive holiday visitors trick, tease and sometimes torture. But whether they come from a field, a parking lot or a box stamped “Made In China,” for a few short weeks once a year, they cradle the personal trinkets of the past, present and future.
Their branches hold so many fat, colorful memories, they can allow a 50-year-old man to still believe in Santa Claus.