Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Ugly Tradition

The ordeal of selecting and subsequently decorating a Christmas tree has routinely been a painful one for our family. With usually four of us involved in it, strong opinions on all sides, and acres of sad, spindly trees from which to choose, the event typically devolves into a disaster. Somebody ends up yelling (usually me), somebody’s feelings get hurt, and in the past, somebody always started crying.

We never buy a tree. They’re absurdly expensive, too “perfect,” and fail to consider that we are surrounded by woods full of cedars and pines. Traditionally, we select cedars, which are usually less leggy and generally ugly as the timber pines. We grab a bow saw and wander around looking for a tree we can all somewhat agree is appropriately shabby and sad, chop it down, and observe it slowly die in our living room amid our Christmas festivities. While none have been as truly pathetic as the notorious “Charlie Brown tree,” some have come close.

There have been some with one good side, some with holes in their shape, and a few with NO good sides at all. In many ways, that’s actually the tradition now. “Here, this one looks ugly enough.”

Most of the time, I fail to accurately measure the thing and we wind up hauling an extra five feet of trunk and itchy branches back, before making adjustments on the front lawn – all the while avoiding the various pieces of deer carcasses that the dog has brought back to gnaw up as they slowly rot. Today there were merely a few tufts of fur, a couple legs, a skull, and only one unidentifiable part. Fairly tidy as the front yard goes, but it still didn’t smell terribly pleasant.

What’s amazing is that the dog, who resides inside an invisible fence, still manages to find so many animal parts. To the best of our knowledge, he doesn’t jump the fence to forage for pieces, but somehow always has them. Even more mystifying, when he does leave the fence, he is leashed and muzzled. He couldn’t even pick them up. Nevertheless, trophies abound. At the end of particularly successful hunting season, not only will the yard be littered with deer appendages, but the nearby wood shed will have a heap of carcass parts on top of it as well. That’s the only place he can’t reach them. This isn’t the first dog we’ve had that’s done this. We look like a butcher shop – a not particularly tidy one.

To my amazement, nobody did any yelling this year as we hunted for a tree. Nor did anybody cry or get absurdly annoyed. We bundled against the cold, English spring weather, dug out a saw, and took off for the woods.

“There aren’t any cedars this way,” I was told. Incorrect, they’re there. Just hang on.

Eventually we began observing them with frequency, quickly eliminated most of them on account of them being short, mangled or otherwise awful. We kept walking.

“That one looks ugly enough. They’re always ugly when we pick them.” I suggested that something better might come along if we kept looking. As we walked off, the dog lifted his leg and urinated on every one of them. Forget it, we will DEFINITELY find better ones elsewhere.

And we did, with only modest searching, no arguments, and the only harsh words spoken directed at the dog, which was making every effort to wander off and chase things. When a hunter drove by, we pretended to be just taking a walk. I had long since heaved the saw into the woods. As he disappeared in the distance, the saw was relocated, cutting was resumed, the tree felled, and quickly hauled back to the house.

This is the smoothest operation in all of my 28 years. Putting it inside the house, it didn’t look too shabby. I clipped a little here and there, turned the tree to put its worst face against the wall (they always have one) and the best forward. As she has done for years, my littlest sister began unraveling the lights in preparation for putting them up. Several tests later, dead bulbs swapped out and one entire line thrown away, she began wrapping them on.

“You’re putting those a little tight, don’t you think?”

“I want it to look slutty.”

Dear lord. Must be the people she works with. No little sister of mine would be naturally that vulgar – and funny. Maybe not, I guess.

Next went up the Whitehouse Christmas ornaments – from unknown origins. A remark was made about not wishing to celebrate the executive branch, or politics in general, at Christmas, or on the Christmas tree. I suggested we forego ornaments altogether. It’s less work, less cleanup, and we won’t lose at least one ornament a year when we fail to see it buried in the innards of the branches and feed it to the goats.

Eventually it was finished. It’s still ugly, but that’s traditional. We christened it by overfilling the reservoir and spilling sugar water all over the hardwood floor. Some things never change. In a few days, we’ll toss presents under it, eye them curiously for about two hours, then rip them all to shreds the next morning, leaving little wrapping paper “droppings” all over the room. Trees love Christmas.

Next year, our tree will be made out of used wrapping paper glued together with eco-friendly, child-safe paste, non-petroleum based tape, and low energy LED fairy lights. Traditionally, it will be ugly.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. I saw a two foot pink, pre-decorated luminescent plastic tree at Michaels Arts & Crafts for $9.98 this afternoon. If only I had spotted it sooner! All that hassle for the same amount of wretchedness.

  2. "Whose woods these are I think I know..."

    The important thing is you are writing. Just like peeling an onion, you take off one layer at a time, and in the end, you realize there was ntohing to it.

  3. There shall be no pink trees. I may be apathetic many customs, but a pink, pre-decorated tree crosses a rather distinct moral line for me.

    As for the woods - they are not our own, but somebody else's. We were just visiting, and borrowing a tree.

    ~Ben Shaw