Sometime between washing the last pan and the first dollop of the leftover Thanksgiving stuffing, our thoughts turn from gluttony to gifting. Whether your tradition deems the verdant branches a Christmas Tree or a Chanukah Bush, let’s stipulate—for the purposes of this story–that a pine-smelling plant is the perfect antidote to winter’s dark chill.
My nuclear family agrees that Christmas requires a tree. But like a Jerry’s Deli Menu, the options at the tree lot can overwhelm my family. Annually.
Our foursome looks at each other. Then all at once:
“Ten is a good height–ten.”
“Maybe six or seven.”
“I’ll let you look around on your own a bit,” Mr. Flannel-Christmas-Sweating-be-Damned says as he walks away. “Let me know when you’re ready,”
And so, our Christmas ritual begins….
“We can put the 10-foot tree in the den,” insists my husband. “It’ll be perfect by the kitchen,”
“That seems awfully big,” I reply. “Even showy. Six or seven would be proportionate”
“Mom, you go big or go home,” declares my daughter. “Twelve’!”
“Eight,” suggests my diplomat-in-the-making son. “Eight seems good.”
The topics to debate are many. Fir? Noble? Spruce? The list is long. And, occasionally loud.
“I don’t care if it’s called a ‘Noble’!” I hiss. “There is nothing regal about that Peanuts-Sad-Christmas-Tree-writ-Large.”
My son moans. My daughter utters an eye-rolling shriek.
My husband implores: “Amy, you couldn’t capitulate–just once?”
“We are not paying $250 for that miserable excuse for a tree!”
My husband sets the tree back in its stand.
Merry Christmas. And to all a good fight. Who says we don’t have yuletide traditions?
We finally agree on a nine-foot Fir – but we’re only halfway there. Now we move onto logistics; do we have the tree delivered or strap it to the roof of our car? Should we spend the money and get a water pan for the tree or do I actually remember where the one from last year is? Are those reports of spontaneous human combustion true–and are dried out Christmas trees always their direct or proximate cause?
“Ma’am, Sir–there’s a line,” whispers the also clad-for-a-snowstorm-that’s-never-going-to-arrive-cashier. “I’ll waive the delivery fee. Just please, I beg of you, make a decision.”
My husband hands over a credit card. “We’ll take it with us.”
The three men who strap our tree onto the roof of my SUV set a world record with their speed.
We ride home in silence – except for the sound of pine needles scratching at my roof.
“Nice of them to give us a blanket to put under the tree,” my little-diplomat-in-training offers.
I hear a particularly loud needle screech. “Pity it isn’t big enough to cover the whole roof.”
“Amy, it’s the roof of a high-profile SUV.” says my husband, with a closing argument tone.
“Even if there are any scratches, no one will see them!”
We won’t speak again until we get the tree set up in the corner between the kitchen and den.
All of us help. Although my husband’s handful of Advil might lead one to think otherwise.
And then the four of us sit on the couch and admire the natural beauty of a tree that was chopped down in its prime so we can stare at it for a few days before ditching it to the curb on New Year’s Day.
I vow it’ll be different next Christmas. And I always mean it.
But it never, ever, ever changes.
Not the year we buy the overpriced hot chocolate at the entrance of the Organically-Holier-Than-Thou-Sustainably-Grown Tree Lot. Nor the year of the apple cider at the Genetically-Modified-Trees-on-Steroids Tree Lot. Not even the year when my husband and I bring our own Corkcicle cups to the Sisters-of-All-That-is-Good-in-the-Universe-Benefiting-Starving-Cancer-Stricken-Children-and-Puppies Tree Lot.
Our ritual is unhealthy. The post-Tree-lot silences grow longer. The fighting is not fun.
And two years ago we spend so much time debating tree lights–white lights versus multi-color versus flashing lights versus non-blinking–that our housekeeper, makes the decision for us. She hangs clear, non-flashing lights on the tree. It is a good decision.
Not even our housekeeper’s shade could make us change our bickering ways.
And so after perusing online after-Christmas sales, I have an epiphany: next year a fake tree will save us. Armed with a measuring tape and a laptop, I research. I measure. I read reviews. Query friends. And order a gorgeous, pre-lit, Vermont White Spruce from Balsam Hill. I am ecstatic.
One blistery [it was in the 40s, that’s freezing in LA–a day when L.L. Bean might be appropriate adjacent] February night my husband and I are welcomed home by ten enormous cardboard boxes blocking our front door.
He glowers at me: “What have you done now?”
I am determined to sound chipper: “It’s a fake tree! We’re going to have a yuletide without all the yelling.”
My husband is skeptical. “Some assembly required,” I presume.
“It’ll pay for itself in a couple of years, “I squeak trying to hide my terror at the company’s definition of ‘some assembly required, “Besides, it’s better for the environment—and you are an Assembly God.”
My husband walks away, shaking his head.
I begin to move the boxes toward the basement stairs. “It’ll be perfect–you’ll see!”
Ten months later the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers are digested and the boxes are back upstairs in the foyer. My husband starts to open them as I head out the door with the kids. “I’ll put the tree up today,” he says.
“Thank you, honey.” I throw him a kiss. “It’s going to be an argument-free holiday season!”
In the car my diplomat-no-longer son pipes up: “Mom, it’s fake. It’ll smell like shit.”
“No, it won’t. I bought tree-scented candles. I want fight-free festivities. And don’t curse.”
My daughter rolls her eyes, “You know we’re going to fight- if it’s not about the tree it’ll be about something else. It’s our tradition.”
“She’s right, Mom,” adds my son. This may be the first time he’s ever agreed with his big sister. Though it’s probably not a good sign when your kids assume discord is a holiday staple. But it could be worse, right?
That afternoon I’m in a meeting when he texts: “Are absolutely sure you want that tree in the foyer? I’ve got the steel structure up and the base level “branches” and it looks too wide.”
My measurements may not have been as accurate as I hoped.
“It should work in the living room,” I text back. I return my focus to work confident my husband will save the day. We’ll be decorating the perfect spruce that evening.
But then he replies: “I am not moving it anywhere on the off chance it fits. You need to see the situation personally, then put your back into it and help move this beast!”
Okay, mistakes may have been made. Then, his final text:
“This unholy thing is better than the tree delivered by the Y—WHY AGAIN?!”
That evening we put the tree in the living room where it takes up most of the space. We leave our presents under it but have to walk around the behemoth to get in or out of the room. And it does smell like shit – even with all the pine candles surrounding the room, which leads to a debate about how the horror of spontaneous human combustion is compounded by plastic.
I have to hire someone to help my husband take down the tree. Both men take hands full of Advil after the task is complete. I tried to sell the tree but… at least the boxes don’t take up that much room in the basement.
This year I buy a small tree at Ralphs. All on my own. It sits in the corner where the kitchen and den meet. No one has said a word about it.
And to all a Good Night.