I am sitting in my girlfriend’s office looking at her office Christmas tree. It is white, snow white, like a snowman in a a Rankin/Bass stop-motion cartoon. (Paul Frees would provide the voice.) We will be trimming it in a few moments.
A white Christmas.
I think that tree trimming was my least favorite 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 even closer to the trunk; and 2. We found that I had overloaded one section with the same color ornament and we needed to correct it.)
One winter, a friend enlisted me in a project to cut down a real live Christmas tree from a Christmas tree farm so her son could experience a Christmas like the one she and I had never ever had. (The sum total of my experience with freshly cut Christmas trees was buying one in a parking lot from a seller who was asked by the police to pick up his trees and move it along seconds after we made an offer. We did not receive an “Everything Must Go Because I Am Being Busted” discount.)
Neither my friend, her seven-year-old son, nor I knew what cutting a live, six-foot-tall or smaller tree would take, 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.) 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 pick a tree that is not on a steep, snowy slope. (Happy people with skis were walking almost as far up as our tree was located. Almost. I was wearing sneakers.)
Many will ask the question, “Should I cut two notches to make a V or cut straight across?” I know I did, just not out loud or in the presence of someone who could tell me the answer. With my tiny, rusty saw and 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 drove away my companion and her son with my grumpy “attitude.”
After an hour alone, 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 V, I had notched something like a lowercase w but less useful, partway to the center of the tree. My friend returned and we commenced cutting straight across, because it was “taking me too long,” when we discovered together that there is nothing quite as unsatisfying as the sound of a tree not coming down no matter how far one has cut through it until it is ready to come down. Nothing unites like mutual frustration.
It eventually came down. I accompanied it down the slope … okay, I rode it down the hill like Slim Pickens at the end of “Dr. Strangelove.” I had not reminded my friend or her seven-year-old son to bring rope to tie it 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.
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 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, I always want this ornament here and now to be the first, last, and 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 part of decorating that I relax and enjoy is either throwing tinsel everywhere or 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 and thin, stringy blonde hair. Its halo was glued-on, as well. But it was our angel, and when nicer, more expensive-looking, ones found their way into our house, they were always relegated to lower branches. My family’s underdog mentality extended to angels.
That mentality may have been the best, most lasting, gift from my family.
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(An earlier version of this was first published last December on my previous website. My girlfriend and I will be decorating the tree again this weekend.)
The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 11 asks, “As it’s been a while since our last free-write … set a timer for ten minutes. Write without pause (and no edits!) until you’re out of time. Then, publish what you have (it’s your call whether or not to give the post a once-over).”
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