Another Christmas tragedy appeared on the horizon with the arrival of our Christmas tree. I have often thought the holiday season would best begin if it didn’t start with this most terrifying event. I don’t believe in the recreational use of drugs but would condone occasional consumption prior to this annual ordeal.
First comes the tree selection. Living in an area where firs are grown commercially, one would think we were one up on people residing in Orlando or Pittsburgh. The opposite is true; more choices more problems. My wife, perfectionist that she is, won’t allow anything but a flawlessly shaped cone to enter the house. No holes, extra branches, twisted limbs or a trunk that is anything but 180 degrees vertical. I have finally learned how to avoid this particular problem. I have a best friend deliver one from his Christmas tree farm. She can’t argue with him.
If choosing the right fir can make me reach for nitroglycerin, putting the chosen one in the stand will be the major contributing factor to my fourth bypass surgery. Christmas tree stands are much like ex-wives; they cost too much, never work, can’t do what you want them to, and never cease taking delight in seeing a grown man cry. My fondest dream is the creation of a virtual Christmas tree. One I can decorate on my computer and then laser it into the appropriate place.
That’s another major headache — where to put the smelly, needle-dropping mess. Why don’t architects design houses that a tree will fit into? If you haven’t gone to the liquor cabinet by now, the next operation will guarantee the need for a double — putting on the lights.
I have often wondered whose idea it was to use lights. I think it was some feminist group who love to see grown men grovel and cry. The real idiots are those men who try to use last year’s lights. I am convinced that a light grinch exists who goes from house to house beginning the day after Christmas. The same Grinch who makes fruit cakes. Somehow (s)he sneaks into basements and quietly tangles strands of lights which were carefully rolled up and, to add insult to injury, steals one bulb from each strand. Of course the man who buys new ones is no better off. I am convinced that light strands are boxed by inebriated Italian cooks. Assuming that you have them properly aligned, it is best to test them. Can you remember any time five strands of lights actually worked simultaneously?
By now a sane person has finished off most of a fifth. The dog is hiding under the neighbor’s house, the kids are calling 911 and your wife is thinking her mother was right when she suggested computer dating or a nunnery instead of accepting your marriage proposal. About this time I usually think of converting to one of the stricter Islamic religions in hopes that it bans all such splash and glitter in its most important religious event*. Realizing that most such faiths forbid the use of alcohol I continue my rock-rolling task and commence placing the lights on the green ogre.
Several theories exist which propound the politically correct way to string the tree. A few of the more popular ones are top down, bottom up, vertical rows, in and out and of course my favorite, helter skelter. Whichever method you choose will always result in the same problem. The last plug is on the opposite side of the tree from the electric receptacle and you don’t have another extension cord. No problem. We just move the tree from its architecturally incorrect place. Success seems just over the horizon until the lights are joyously plugged in by your youngest. Someone bought those infernal blinking lights! Time for another double.
By now most men have retired to the opposite side of the room, taken up the fetal position and started sucking their thumbs. For the few that have made it beyond this far comes the glorious hanging of balls. Another of nature’s great mysteries presents itself. Where did all the hangars go that you so carefully packed each ball with just 51 weeks before? It may be a genetically deformed version of the light grinch, but I truly believe that this phenomenon is something akin to the Bermuda Triangle. Enough of Christmas tree balls. They are a novel for another time. Let it be said that everything from a golf shoe to a Taco Bell Chihuahua is hung from our fir. Now the bottle is empty and a second cracked open.
Just three more tasks: tinsel, star and tree skirt. As many theories abound concerning appropriate tinsel hanging as light placement. Once again you have the single strand placement advocates, the several at a time underhand toss people, and the two-handed glob throwing radicals. Of course one has to consider whether to implement the “little is better theory” or the “more the merrier plan.” No matter what the choice, one can be assured most of this rejected aluminum foil will end up in the floor and will be around when the Easter bunny comes. Hmm. I had never thought how much tinsel looks like that colored stuff put in Easter baskets.
The crowning moment has now come; the star. Some prefer a lighted version, but by now my tree is violating all fire codes so the plain star is chosen. If everything has proceeded accordingly I have had about two shots of the second bottle and am convinced that I can stand one legged on a barstool while holding the wall and perfectly place the real symbol of Christmas. I won’t bore you with the details. As I stumble to my feet and pick up the chair, my wife dryly comments that the tree looks cute lying on the floor and now she won’t have to worry about the kids pulling it over on themselves.
After carefully wiring the tree to the mantle, an overhead light and a screw placed in the wall, my wife puts the skirt under the tree. Tree skirts serve no apparent function other than to create havoc every time you need to water the damn tree. I believe mothers hand these down to daughters as a curse. My thinking is that old white sheets are best as long as they haven’t been used too often as dropcloths for home painting projects. (Another story for another time.)
Eureka! A skirt! If only someone had told me that Christmas trees are female. Next year will be different. First thing I’m going to do is burn my friend’s Christmas tree farm.
Post Script. A typical Monday at the office has just ended. I sit on the couch with a glass of wine, turn on my computer and double click the AOL button. She is running around the house trying to ready for our Christmas party just three days away. Supper is in the crockpot. Her best friend drops in for a quick drink. Of course a tree viewing is in order. From across the room I watch as lights are plugged in. A blood curdling yell disgorges from my wife’s mouth: “The lights won’t work.”
These words immediately send cold chills running down my spine. I believe that no other phrase could evoke the fear and trepidation that I begin to experience. “Please God, let the lights come on.” Genesis and the story of the first days of the world came to mind. Once again I quietly and fervently pray that He would let there be light. Alas, such was not the case.
As fate would have it, my wife’s younger sister arrives on the scene. You know her. The one who works at the Christmas shop. She of Christmas tree knowledge and the patience of Job. (I often wonder if they are truly of the same gene pool.) A long explanation of never putting more than three strands on one switch, never mixing and matching different lights and, of all things, how fuses work is mockingly given and contritely received.
I have always considered myself a quick learner. It only takes driving a screwdriver into two knuckles to decide that a $3.95 set of lights was not worth the effort to repair. The unthinkable replacement of the dead set is a better fate. Into the tree I go. I tell my wife where my last will and testament is and that I have signed a donor card and a living will.
Three minutes later, with evergreen scratches covering my arms, needles in my mouth and sap covering my hands, I escape the tree with the dead strand. No rest for the weary though. A quick survey of the tree by my lovely is made. From out of no where she produces the dreaded replacement set. Reminding her of my burial requests I dive back into the forest.
I have never believed in good or bad fortune, but somehow my lucky light must have been shining on this tree. In less than two minutes I replace the darkened set and am sitting on the floor with plug in hand. I think to myself, maybe I shouldn’t press my luck. What if I plug it in and nothing but a black hole appears? Naw, it’s my lucky day. Quickly I insert the plug into the receptacle. Yes!! I high five the dog and the kids. God is undeservedly smiling on me. Evidently he has decided I have been punished enough for one Christmas.
As I sit on the couch pounding out this story on my Toshiba lap top I lift my humble head and tearfully stare across the living room floor. There stands the most beautiful tree in the whole world. My wife’s Christmas tree.
Post post script. It is now two years since I revealed the terrible horrors you have just read. Once again I’m sitting on the couch three days before the “Big Xmas Party”. Lucky me — I don’t have to wander into that terrible forest again. Most people wouldn’t have gone to the extremes I did to escape this punishment. How does back surgery sound? Yes sir it works wonders. Not suffering excruciating back pain every time you breathe is only secondary. The good news is your surgeon repeatedly telling you in front of the lovely: “ FOR THE NEXT MONTH DON’T LIFT ANYTHING HEAVIER THAN FIVE POUNDS, DON’T BEND, TWIST OR TURN AND USE PAIN MEDICATION AS NEEDED.”
Scheduling this surgery did take some doing. Most patients have to wait six weeks to see a doctor and then another month to get scheduled. Christmas had slipped up on me and I didn’t have this long to wait. It so happens my brother lives next door to this neurosurgeon who plays bad poker and I guess you can figure out the rest. One month after the MRI revealed a herniated disc, I was on the operating table. Some of you might think I went to extremes to avoid the tree. You haven’t heard anything yet. Next year I’m thinking of confessing to being Jack the Ripper.
It is 2011 some 12 years after the first episode in this saga and the merriest of all seasons is upon us — like a white sheet pulled over a corpse. Age does have its benefits. My lovely hasn’t required that hallowed of all hallowed icons, THE CHRISTMAS TREE, for almost 5 years. Of course each Xmas party we go to brings the sardonic “I know we don’t need a tree, but doesn’t that one look beautiful?” Saturday night almost brought a good marriage to a bad end. Fate would have it that we were invited to my friend’s house who supplied the trees for many years. A chef’s dinner was being served — at least I would die on a full stomach. We had barely pulled into the drive on Scenic Circle when it began — “Whee, look at the trees — and one is on the outside porch!” I mumbled under my breath, “if I owned a tree farm we would have one on the porch too, but I am a lawyer who has had three open heart surgeries, four stents, three hip replacements, two back surgeries, gall bladder surgery, two knee surgeries and a partridge in a damned old Christmas tree.” Fortunately the divine one didn’t hear me. The night went well enough — a good merlot makes all things merrier and Carolina won a close basketball game. As we drove down the street towards our treeless home the bell rang on the first round of a marriage ending argument — “we could move the couch, tie up the dog, move the TV and put up a little tree.” I reached for the nitro hoping that this would stop the pain — not in my chest, but in my head. She immediately fell for the ruse. “Honey, I knew it would be too much for you. We can do without again.” And so another Christmas will pass without the need of a divorce attorney and sans tree.
(Gavin Brown is an attorney and mayor of Waynesville.)