We bought a live Christmas tree today. After nearly two decades of being married, my wife and I have never bought a live tree together.
We went with a balsam fir. We were going to get a Fraser fir or a Douglas fir, but we didn’t want to reverse mortgage our house.
The first thing I realized when buying a live tree is that Christmas trees have gone up in price considerably since my childhood. For a balsam fir that’s roughly the size of a mature traffic cone you’re looking at a price tag of $79.99.
“Think of this as an entry level tree,” said the tree salesman. “Kinda like the Toyota Corolla of the Christmas tree world.”
So after we paid for our tree, we strapped it to the top of our van and took the interstate home, traveling upwards of 75 mph. By the time we pulled into our driveway, most of the pine needles had blown away so that it looked like we had a piece of driftwood attached to our vehicle roof.
Once the tree was inside the house, we prepared to have a night of Christmas reverie and joy. I fetched the box of decorations while my wife cued up Christmas music on our streaming service ($10.99 per month).
And by “cued up Christmas music” I mean, of course, that my wife struggled with an endless technological nightmare of Wi-Fi settings, forgotten internet passwords, faulty modem connections, and customer service phone representatives headquartered in Bangladesh. Finally my wife said, “screw it,” and turned on the radio.
And the memories got so thick you had to swat them away like gnats.
When I was a kid we always had the best Christmas trees. I don’t know what happened over the years, but somewhere along the way my family quit using live trees.
Which is probably why the only Christmas tree paraphernalia I could find in our attic was a box of outmoded antiques that once belonged to my grandparents.
I found an old tree skirt made of white felt that predated the Roosevelt administration. I also found my family’s heirloom red-and-green Christmas-tree stand.
Every house in the Lower Forty-Eight used to have one of these metal, red-and-green, jack post treestands. It’s an invention about as worthless as a white crayon. These stands never worked, they were always causing your tree to topple and crash.
It is a proven statistic that the leading cause of U.S. divorces between 1929 and 1998 were red-and-green Christmas-tree stands.
Even so, putting up the tree during my childhood was a big event. It always went the same way.
My old man would come home from a long day at work. We’d hear his Ford roar up the driveway. He’d enter through the back door, covered in soot and sweat, carrying a fir tree about the size of the Jefferson Memorial.
“Get outta the way, this thing’s heavy,” he’d say.
He would triumphantly plop the tree into the living room like a dead musk ox and announce that it was time to make merry.
Mama would put Andy Williams on the hifi. My old man would crack open a can of high-octane cheer, and it was officially Christmas.
My mother would hold the tree steady while my father crouched beneath the boughs, manhandling the flimsy treestand. He tightened eye-bolts, braced wobbly legs, and whittled the base of the tree with his pocketknife so that it would fit. And this entire process took about as long as veterinary school.
“Hold it still!” he’d shout.
“I’m holding it still!” my mother would say.
“Hold it REALLY still!”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“You’re moving the dang thing around, that’s what I think!”
Then my father would cuss.
This would be followed by the sound of my father screaming in bloodcurdling pain. “Ouch! You kicked me!”
And my mother would have already vanished from the room as the tree made its slow descent onto the floor.
After several hours and one case of Pabst, my father would finally get the unstable stand to work. But the tree was always crooked. The balsam would be leaning slightly northeast, pointing at about three o’clock.
Next my mother, my sister, and I would decorate the tree, painstakingly covering it in strands of white popcorn, colored lights, paper ornaments, garland, and three metric tons of tinsel.
Before bed, my sister and I would admire the twinkling bulbs in the darkness, talking about the mysteries of Saint Nick, the Virgin Birth, and the alternate lyrics to “We Three Kings.” And I can’t think of many memories that are any sweeter.
At some point during the midnight hours, when the whole world was fast asleep; when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even my hamster, the tree would fall over with a loud crash.
And somewhere in the darkness you could hear the faint sound of the old man dog-cussing.
So anyway, these were the things I thought about earlier today while I crawled under our live balsam fir. And it’s also what I was thinking about when I put up the framed picture of Daddy beside the tree.