Somehow the threat of danger seemed to make our Christmas tree more worthwhile.
Our family room tree, in contrast with the more austere “nice tree” in the living room, was a garish, hulking thing. A hodgepodge of lights and garland and ornaments of every shape size and color, its beauty derived mainly from its randomness. Our Christmas tree didn’t give it a shit, because all other trees cold suck it.
The 20-year-old strings of lights burned hot to the touch. Sometimes they buzzed low when we plugged them in. We regularly threw circuit breakers. A week wasn’t complete without at least one trip down to the basement to stumble around in total darkness feeling for the electrical box.
When we got out first family computer, we made sure the tree was unplugged before we turned it on. See, we’d just switched from stone tablets to paper the year before, and we were still a little spooked by the “electric.”
The tree was in constant danger of drying out. Garland would melt if it were within an inch of a light bulb. Some blinked, some shone solid, and all of them, old soldiers as they were, seemed at any moment capable of setting the house aflame. But my dad assured us it was all quite safe. (It seemed to have something to do with the amount of black electrical tape he used.) And I was inclined to believe him.
The danger began with the initial hunt for the tree. It played out much the same every year. We were always in search of a fir tree—a Douglas fir or a Frasier fir. Why? Because that’s the kind of tree his dad always got. Also, they’re beautiful.
We’d drive around for a while looking for the right lot. He’d have a tip from someone he worked with, so we’d try there first. My parents would agonize over the decision while I tromped through the fallen needles, exploring between the trees on display like I was in the Deep Dark Forest.
My dad wasn’t great when it came to conflict, but he always gave it a good shot dickering with the guys on the lot. I don’t think he ever really enjoyed it. I think he just felt compelled to do it. If they were charging too much (I swear one of my dad’s favorite things was to complain about how expensive Christmas trees were), we’d try somewhere else. Eventually he’d get someone to lower the price. Nothing less than a $10 discount would do.
Then we’d strap it to the roof of the car and slowly drive home. “Keep an eye on the tree,” my dad would say. “We don’t want it to slide off into the road.”
We always bought the tree too big—eight feet tall and monstrously wide. He liked to shorten and shape it himself. We’d wrestle the behemoth into the house, peppering the carpet with stray needles and chips of bark, our hands sticky with sap. It always seemed twice as large once it was in the house. But it smelled, oh, so good.
Then I’d go fetch the saw so my dad could make a fresh cut off the the bottom. As I held the tree still for him, I liked to think what I could do with that cross section of trunk: a picture frame, a soap dish—or I could whittle it down to a… I don’t know, a small piece of folk art, or something.
No matter how large the tree got, we always used the same stand every time. It was maybe 18 inches wide at the most, and it was meant to support the entire weight of that tree and its accessories. We may as well have just stood the tree upside-down. It would been just as well-balanced.
He’d trim the top bough to get the thing wedged neatly between floor and ceiling, and shape or remove certain branches. There were always bare spots toward the bottom. Dad sometimes tied stray loose branches into place to fill them in. The garland always covered it up, so you could never tell.
String came in handy. One year the tree was so heavy on one side, we had to bind it in place with string. It was so top-heavy, the dog still managed to knock it over a few times.
Most years the tree scraped the ceiling and filled a sixth, maybe a fifth, of our rather large family room. And my dad would radiate satisfaction every time a visitor exclaimed upon entering the house: “Jesus, Bob—that tree is huge! It gets bigger every year, you crazy son of a bitch!”
I hoped that one day I would be able to command such attention. When I was old enough to buy a house, I decided, I would have even higher ceilings. I would go out to the real woods, and I’d saw the tree down myself and drag it home through the snow. And one day my dad would come over to visit, and he’d say, “Jesus, Eric, you crazy son of a bitch! That tree is huge!”