How (not) to cut down your own Christmas tree.
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I am sitting in my girlfriend’s office looking at her office Christmas tree. It is white, snow white, like a snowman in a Rankin/Bass claymation cartoon. We will be trimming it in a few moments.
I think that tree trimming was my least favorite type of trimming when I was young. I still lack the eye necessary for decorating a tree correctly; in fact, I believe that almost every tree I have attempted to decorate has been quietly fixed upon my leaving.
(Two things transpired within moments of me writing the above: 1. My girlfriend credited me with expanding her notions of tree decoration—she said, “You’re the first person I’ve seen who does not put all the decorations on the ends of the branches,” which is true, I sometimes place them on the middle or sometimes closer to the trunk; and 2. We found that I had overloaded one section with the same color ornament and we needed to correct this.)
One winter’s day long ago, a friend enlisted me in a project to cut down a real live Christmas tree from a Christmas tree farm so that her son could experience a Christmas like the one she and I had never ever had.
Now, the sum total of my experience with freshly cut Christmas trees came one night in the 1990s when I attempted to purchase one in a parking lot from a seller who was asked by the police to pick up his trees and move it along just seconds after I handed him some cash. We did not receive an “Everything Must Go Because I Was Just Busted” discount. Nor did we get a tree. (Our cash payment went into an evidence bag.)
Oh! And there was one Christmas when a friend had cut down or purchased a tree that was taller than her house and several of us actually used the geometry lessons that I had been convinced I would never ever use in real life to angle it into place. And there it stayed until spring when we re-employed those geometry lessons to remove it.
Back to the year I cut down a Christmas tree. Neither my friend, her seven-year-old son, nor I knew what cutting a live, six-foot-tall or smaller tree would involve, so we brought the only saw that she knew she had. I believe it was one that her uncle had rejected forty-five years earlier for one that was actually sharp; now, forty-five years later, it also had some rust on it. We then drove to a tree farm in Dutchess County, New York. I have chopped wood plenty of times, and I have helped take dead trees down—neither of these experiences served me on this day.
The first task in cutting down a fresh Christmas tree for oneself is finding something to occupy the seven-year-old son of your friend—allowing the child to select the winning tree to preserve your friendship with his mom is advisable. Next up is failure in the negotiations with the seven-year-old to select a tree that is not atop the steepest, snowiest slope the farthest away. (Happy people with skis were walking almost as far up as our tree was located. Almost. I was not wearing skis. I was wearing the same pair of sneakers that I did everything in. Most everything I ever did was indoors. These sneakers lacked structural integrity, but my friendship with the child’s mom became all the integrity I needed.)
Many will ask the question, “Should I cut two notches to make a V or should I cut the tree straight across?” I know I asked it, just not out loud or in the presence of someone who could supply the answer. With my tiny, rusty saw and with no one holding the other side of the saw, I started notching one side of a V. The blade sliced some bark off and did not penetrate the green wood underneath. The snow had already penetrated my shoes, though. The trunk was no thicker than two inches wide, if that—hey, I’m no tree-ologist!—but it was quickly apparent that I was going to need help.
With that in mind, I put all my efforts into driving away my companion and her son with my grumpy “attitude.”
After an hour alone with my future Christmas tree, my inner debate over cutting straight through versus cutting a V had produced several partial starts—some up, some down—all the way around the trunk of the tree. Instead of a strong V, I had notched something like a lowercase w but one less useful than that, partway to the center of the tree. Partway.
My friend returned and we commenced cutting straight across, because it was “taking me too long,” and we then discovered together that there is nothing quite as unifyingly unsatisfying as the sound of a tree not coming down no matter how far one has cut through it until it is ready, philosophically and morally ready, to come down. Nothing rejoins a bickering pair quite like mutual frustration.
It eventually came down. I accompanied it down the slope … okay, I admit that I rode it down the hill like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove. When we left the house, I had not reminded my friend or her seven-year-old son to bring rope to tie our bounty to the roof of her car, so we drove home with it sticking out one of the backseat windows. In my lap.
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My family had one plastic tree for twenty or more Christmases. It was a well-constructed one, actually, a bare metal trunk with a two or three hoops to hook in each individual branch around the tree. It actually had an instruction manual. Our Christmas tree and boxes of ornaments occupied several boxes in the basement; the annual production of “putting up the tree” was my introduction to grown-ups not being able to remember from one year to the next the locations of things they put away in the same box in the same place every year. And now I am that grown-up.
Then as now, I am sure that my mother and father found it necessary to re-position my ornaments; I swear that something happens to me when I approach a tree, ornament in hand. I have hooked ornaments into my own shirt buttonholes when I swear I was aiming for the tree. Just as I wanted to cut my one live tree down in one graceful and strong sawing motion, a Paul Bunyan in my fantasy, I always want this ornament in my hand here and now to be the first, the last, and the only one needed to make this year’s tree the complete and perfect Christmas statement. I want someone to exclaim, “This is the most Christmas ever!” Christmas brings out the perfectionist in all his mistake-prone grumpiness in me.
Thus, the only parts of decorating that I relax and enjoy are the practice of throwing tinsel everywhere—on the tree and near the tree—and putting the angel on top. (That is an unsung rite of passage, growing tall enough to top the tree with a star or angel.) We had an angel, a cardboard seraph with glued-on glitter that was peeling off and thin, stringy blonde hair. Its halo was glitter glued on its head, as well, not even on a wire. It was a broken angel. But it was our angel, the one my sister and I thought of as ours for some reason, and when nicer, more expensive-looking, angels found their way into our house, they were always relegated to lower branches. Our dented angel always sat on top. My family’s mentality of always rooting for the underdog extended to angels.
That mentality may be the best, the longest lasting, gift I received from my family.
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Happy Christmas, everyone!
This is a revision of an earlier Christmas story.
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