By Michael Turton
Leona Boyd’s rendition of “Green Sleeves” plays softly on the stereo. Wine glasses clink. Outside, choral offerings send goose bumps through even the staunchest non-believer. Neighbors greet each other with extra warmth in their voice. Their interminable wait behind them, children’s memories are emblazoned forever. Families are together.
Time has not quite come to a standstill but it has certainly slowed. Christmas has arrived once again. December 25th has 24 hours, like every other day. Christmas though, is a series of all too brief moments: wonderful snapshots, well earned through weeks of stress, excessive planning, overspending, overeating, over drinking, ludicrous schedules and frayed nerves — all in the name of seasonal cheer.
Of all our Yuletide symbols, perhaps none at times captures this prolonged angst in search of fleeting ecstasy more clearly than the annual adventure we know as the Christmas tree. It’s the same every year, the stuff upon which family tradition is built:
Let’s get an artificial tree this year – they’re so much easier.
This is not an option. You will help pick out the tree and you will have fun.
Where did I put that *&%^$ tree stand?
Great, even the replacement bulbs don’t work.
No, it’s fine, if you stand right here — no right here — now tilt your head slightly to the left — lower your right shoulder a bit – there. See? The tree is perfectly straight.
Eventually it does happen. The Christmas tree snapshot. Everyone notices it at the same time. The tree is done. It looks great. A collective sigh. It was worth it. The pause lingers for just a moment, and then in perfect unison, the entire family hurtles headlong to meet the next challenge of the season. It’s the same every year. Every year that is, except 1989: the year of the mystic Christmas tree.
It began innocently enough, when, completely on my own, I decide it is time to pick out the Christmas tree. I should have seen it as the first sign. I mention my plan to Elaine. I hold my breath, waiting for the annual pitch to go artificial. It doesn’t come. Just, “OK, why don’t you take the boys with you?” Now, that is an entirely different matter. Selecting the tree has never been known as one of the season’s smoother events. It is, however, one of those parental decrees that a father must impose on his sons. Years from now they will thank me and inflict the same tradition on their kids. The boys are focused, intently playing a video game. Stiff competition.
“Hey guys, wanna come with me to get the Christmas tree?” Not very assertive. I want to rephrase the suggestion. “Yeah…sounds like fun. Just give me a second or tow. There I beat his butt bad.” Both boys bolt up the stairs hollering “Let’s go.” I stand transfixed. Something is wrong. Or rather, something may be right.
We are in the car now, usually the scene of the first real discord. Which lot has the best trees? Scotch pine or a fir? Who gets to choose? How much should we spend? What height is best? But an eerie calm has descended. No sibling battles take place during the entire, arduous, five minute drive. There aren’t even any complaints that I have the radio tuned to the CBC. I boldly assert that we will simply stop at the first lot we see.
No problem dad.
Cool, it’ll save time dad.
What did you say? That’s what I thought you said.
I park the car quickly. We are at a critical juncture and I know if this is to be pulled off with minimal casualties it is a time for some firm, fatherly direction. I lower my voice an octave. “Drew, Blair, in past years there has been some ‑ well ‑ mild friction over the selection of the Christmas tree. You will also vividly recall that last year we froze our butts off because it took more than an hour to choose a tree that Charlie Brown, even in his kindest moment, would have rejected. So, here’s what I suggest in the faint hope that we can actually have fun doing this. We will take 15 minutes. During that time we will each select the tree we think is the best. Now here’s the hard part. In the true spirit of Christmas we will look at all three trees and select the best one ‑ no matter who picked it out.
What do you think?
Makes sense to me dad.
Seems downright fair daddeo.
I know something is up but I don’t dare say anything. There is definitely a trend building here. But, just as when a pitcher is throwing a no hitter going into the sixth inning, you just keep quiet. You don’t want to be the one to break the spell. Five minutes into the selection process Blair yells out, “I think I’ve found the tree of trees!” I wait. No sarcastic comment from Drew. In fact he comes right over and says that he thinks that Blair’s tree has a lot of potential. Then he adds, “Hey dad, your tree looks as good as Blair’s.” I respond, “Yeah it’s not bad, but don’t you have one picked out?”
“No it’s OK. Let’s just choose between the two. They’re both great and it will be quicker,” Drew states. This is unheard of. New ground was being broken in the Christmas tree selection process. We put the two trees together. We all agree that both are winners but for reasons none of us can articulate, Blair’s is clearly the tree of choice. We take it. A unanimous decision. I am sure that decades from now, Christmas tree historians will point to this incident as a turning point: a watershed moment.
On the way home Drew mentions that even the bottom of the tree seems perfectly straight. I caution the boys that this was a very common seasonal illusion and that they should not allow themselves to be taken in by it. “I said the same thing when I was your age Drew. My dad warned me, but I paid him no heed. You watch. When we get that tree in the house we’ll be lucky if we cut anything less than a foot off the bottom of that sucker. Anything less will be considered a major victory,” I explain. The boys nod seriously. They are learning, absorbing the subtle, intricate and hidden aspects of Christmas tree management.
We arrive at home and immediately drag the tree downstairs. Blair proudly announces to his mom that he has at last found the tree of trees. Elaine gives a knowing, motherly smile. “Didn’t you say the same thing last year when you guys brought home that Charlie Brown reject?”
I quickly dispatch Drew to pick up any needles that have fallen upstairs. I remind him that the stakes are high and that if he fails to collect all needles before Elaine sees them we will be doomed to the realm of artificial treedom forever. A quick study, Drew immediately grasps the gravity of the situation and is off in a flash. He is back even quicker: his eyes as big as Christmas ornaments.
Dad, the tree didn’t drop any needles.
Drew, Blair and I exchange glances but no one speaks. We all know that everyone knows but no one wants to break up the no-hitter. We are in the bottom of the seventh. “OK Blair. By virtue of being the shortest, you are being called upon to undertake what is truly a thankless mission. I want you to go into the crawl space and find both the tree stand and the decorations – forthwith,” I assert. “I already know where the decorations are dad. I built a fort with the boxes last week. But what does the tree stand look like?” Blair asks. I forgive the fort thing immediately. Just finding the decorations so quickly is a huge bonus. “Well Blair, there’s a picture of it on the box, if I didn’t throw it out. It’s a green pot with three legs and a set of weird looking flat springs,” I explain.
Like a hound dog on the trial of a fresh scent, Blair is soon in the deepest recesses of the crawl space. He returns breathless. “I found it dad,” he exclaims. “No Blair, what you found is the box. Don’t be fooled. Don’t bet all your presents that I actually put the stand back in the right box last year,” I caution. I open the lid. The tree stand is there. Intact. Even the little green things they call sprockets are there. All four of them. And the springs. All the decorations are in their rightful place as well. We are in the eighth inning now.
“OK Blair, you go upstairs for a few minutes. You know I tend to get a bit …worked up… wrestling the tree into the stand. It could get ugly. Ask Drew to bring me the saw so I can trim the bottom of the tree, “I suggest. Drew arrives with the saw. “Well dad, did the tree develop crooked-trunk syndrome just as you predicted?” he asks. We stand the tree up. No bends. No dog legs. No twists. Not even at the bottom. “You can take the saw back Drew. For the first in at least three generations we don’t need it. Now go upstairs with your brother while I force this tree into the stand.”
“Don’t want me to hear you swear eh dad?” Drew very astutely observes. “You got it. Just go upstairs and leave Shannon with me for company” Shannon is a lovable but elderly Irish Setter we rescued from a one way trip to the dog pound recently. We had mistakenly called her Shauna for a month until the previous owner corrected us. No wonder she never paid any attention to us. She is a great dog with a not-so-great bladder.
It is very quiet. Just Shannon, the tree, the tree stand and me. The dog lies with her front legs outstretched, her head on her paws, watching me intently. What transpires next probably only takes five seconds by the clock although it seems to take s full minute in super slow motion. I lift the tree vertically until it touches the ceiling and then, in one motion, drive the bottom of the trunk straight down into the stand. It makes a loud thump as it forces its way through the tightly sprung holding device and hits the bottom. I look at the tree. It is straight. Perfectly straight. I grab the trunk about half way up its length. It is solid. It doesn’t budge.
Shannon knows something extraordinary is taking place. She stands up quickly. She never does anything quickly. She looks at the tree, turns her head and looks me straight in the eye. The best moments are shared moments. She tilts her head to the left. Her right ear twitches. She lets out a sound that is something between a whine and a howl. She comes over, nuzzles close against me briefly and then struggles up the stairs to more understandable surroundings.
We are in the bottom of the ninth and the crowd is roaring in my ears. Drew comes down and tests the four strands of lights. They all work. Elaine, Blair and I join in the decorating. No one complains about the prickly needles. No one argues over whose turn it is to put the final decoration on the top of the tree. Blair doesn’t insist on putting an entire box of bulbs on one branch. No decorations get broken. Everyone notices it at the same time. It is the Christmas tree snapshot.
Drew asks if we should water the tree. I say, “Yes, and be sure to add some sugar to the warm water. “Will that help it absorb the water better dad?” he asks. “No Drew, I just think it will taste better,” I say.
The boys stay downstairs, enjoying the sight and smell of the tree while they debate what they think will appear under it in just a few days. Shannon has fully recovered and has rejoined them. Elaine and I sip on a glass of white wine. Leona Boyd’s version of Silent Night plays softly upstairs, just barely audible. Time has slowed to a stand-still. We are ready for Christmas.
The garbage truck squeaks to a halt out front. Two burley men get out and start heaving the collection of light, wrapping-paper filled bags into the hopper. They both pause when they notice the piece of flapping, white paper on the tree. They take a closer look and I see them chuckle. On each side of the piece of paper is a brief message in green crayon. One side, in the unmistakable hand of a seven year old boy, bears the caption “This was the tree of trees.” On the other side, in the just-slightly-neater printing of his big brother are the words “Hail the mystic tree of ’89.”