My father is not a cheapskate. Let’s just get that clear right up front, before my significant helpmate shouts, “He is too!” from the next room. My father is a child of the Great Depression, when that hearty stock of gritty survivalists baked their own bread made from dirt they dug from the back yard, walked 28 miles to school every day (uphill, both ways), and gave birth to their children in mangers because there was no room in the inn. Er, wait … I think I’m mixing up my stories here.
My father inculcated in the child that sprung from his parsimonious loins a healthy admiration for frugality, placed in a delicate cosmic balance with the sentimental, resulting in what I like to think of as a proper state of mind when it comes to arguments over spending too much money at Christmastime. Over the years, I have neatly ducked the undoubtedly environmentally sound protestations of my bride who has suggested the purchase of a prefabricated Christmas tree every holiday season since we were first tethered together in connubial bliss. The first hints usually begin long about August.
“Hey look,” she’ll hey from a corner of the living room, “I’m still picking up pine needles from last year.” I regard this as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year through, a gentle reminder of the Christmas spirit, even in the scorching, humid heat of the summer doldrums.
“Uh-huh,” she’ll respond. “I remember now. The vacuum cleaner clogged and tore a belt on all those needles when I was cleaning up after your tree last year.” I generally respond to this assault on my coniferous preferences by blurting out a bar of O’ Tannenbaum. I prefer the German lyrics. It gives my response the proper sense of “I’m not buying a plastic tree, and this is final,” in a way that only the German language can really communicate:
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Dein Kleid will mich was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Mut und Kraft zu jeder Zeit!
It’s the sort of heartwarming lyric I can imagine Erwin Rommel barking at his wife when she suggested an artificial tree, as he was headed out the door to Libya to go command the Afrika Korps.
Long about September, she’ll take the opportunity to wander past my desk and casually make an offhand remark about how the average acre of uncut pines and firs generates enough oxygen every day to keep 18 people breathing, or that 21 million trees were mercilessly hacked down in the prime of life last year, and that if every American man was as shamelessly pigheaded about Christmas trees as me, 446,996 acres of trees would be whacked down. At 18 people’s daily oxygen, per acre, I’d be personally responsible for suffocating 8,045,928 of my fellow citizens. To which I reply, if that includes the lady who cut in line in front of me at the grocery with 215 items in the ‘12 or Less’ lane, armed with a suitcase filled with coupons, that would be okay by me.
Come November, there’s no avoiding the artificial tree display at the Hardware Hut, where all of these wire and plastic mockeries of the yuletide season stand, like some arboreal firing squad. “A snap to put up in less than five minutes!” they coo. “No mess, no fuss!” they taunt. “Look! I’m even pre-lit!” teases the latest phony fir, as it’s fake fronds beckon the holiday shopper, appealing to his weakening resolve with a can of evergreen-scented air freshener, included at no extra charge. Like some scantily-clad temptress, whispering in his ear, they display their tainted wares and attempt to seduce him. “Take me to your house, honey. I look like the real thing. No one will ever know. I’ll even make it easy on you when you’re tired of me after New Year’s Eve. You can pack me up when you’ve finished with me, and put me away, and not even think of me till next year. Because I’ll wait for you, baby.”
No dice. I’m not buying. Which brings me back to the recombinant cheapskate gene I allegedly inherited from my father. Because, you see, not only am I not buying an artificial tree made by Chinese prisoners in a “re-indoctrination” camp, I’m not buying a real one either. No $200 tree in a box for me, but also no pre-cut, dried out, sap-oozing, needle-dropping, $99 refugee from a Michigan tree farm for me, either.
My parents divorced early in my life and have been remarried several times between them, which means my extremely complex family relations resemble more of a merger than a standard familial bond. It’s more like the close, personal relationships one develops with fellow passengers during a bus plunge. So the strange mélange of holiday traditions that have been passed, re-passed, co-mingled and co-opted by the various offspring that make up my siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings have allowed all of us to cherrypick the ones we like best and force them upon our own families. And the one that I consider sacrosanct is the annual chopping down of a free-range Christmas tree – the word “free” being the operative term.
My father has never, in his 87 years, paid for a Christmas tree, and he taught me all of the tricks of the trade. Overwhelmingly, his preferred manner of tree shopping involved long afternoon drives in the country searching for just the right combination of isolated location and questionable property ownership, returning as dusk fell to quickly chop down his prize. Over the years, we had a wild variety of trees – the standard pines, firs and spruces, and the not-so-standard hemlocks, cedars, cypresses, and arborvitaes. Some were downright dangerous to the touch, with the same sort of prickly nature as a cactus plant, which made the hanging of lights and ornaments a hazardous occupation. And true , there was the occasional bird or rodent that rode into the living room, buried deep within the tree’s hidden recesses. Some of my fondest memories were of Dad, heady with the scent of the hunt and emboldened by a couple of tankards of spiked nog, chasing a startled starling around the house, frantically batting at it with a broken pool cue stick. The tradition was what mattered, and it added a sense of wild adventure to our celebrations that other families missed. “And the price was right,” Dad would always say, cheerfully.
Obviously, as he got older and we moved to more densely populated urban areas, this became a more challenging activity. After all, the local bank branch or office park looked with prejudicial disfavor at the destruction of their expensive landscaping for the sake of one gritty, Depression-era gentleman’s ideas about Christmas celebration. And honestly, I thought it was a little over the top to call me wanting bail money that first year in the city, especially during the busy holiday shopping season.
Technology has come to the aid of the modern Christmas tree shopper in the form of the Whack & Heckler 18-volt rechargeable, cordless chainsaw – a tiny titan of the tool world that makes quick work of surreptitious Nöel deforestation, especially in the gathering gloom of December’s early sunsets. This year, I was especially happy with my choice – a six foot evergreen of some sort, discovered down a ravine far from civilization – because it sported what appeared in the bitter cold dusk to be tiny, baby-sized pine cones. I quickly channeled my inner Paul Bunyan, felled it, dragged it up the hill like a prize of war, lashed it to the roof of the car, and drove homeward.
Once I had mounted it in its stand in our living room, my sweetling was less than impressed. “It’s shaped funny,” she noted, “and it isn’t even green.” True, I had to admit that, in the tungsten glow of our home, it did indeed look a bit brownish.
“Yes, but the price was right,” I quoted Dad. Somehow I didn’t think this impressed her.
“One of these days you’re gonna get arrested doing this. Or shot by somebody who catches you and your little George Washington hatchet trespassing on their property.”
“Oh come on,” I offered, “it’s Christmas. Look at the little baby-sized pine cones. I picked it out special. Have some nog.”
She soon warmed to the combination of the season and the pioneer spirit of adventure. Well, she at least warmed up enough that she soon helped me decorate the new tree. We strung the lights and hung our delicate ornaments. Against my own personal artistic judgment, I even let her heave great wads of shiny aluminum tinsel all over it – her own family’s favorite decorating tradition. Frankly, I had to admit that the strands of shredded chrome helped to hide the brown looking branches. But we did take extra care to put lights close to the baby-sized pine cones to highlight their natural beauty.
Two nights later I was standing in the garage, on the other side of two closed doors, when I heard a shriek she usually reserves for finding spiders in the shower or raccoons in the refrigerator. I ran in, to find her standing across the living room, pointing in horror at the Christmas tree.
“Your pine cones,” she hissed, with a combination of revulsion and rather pointed blame. “They’re moving!”
Sure enough, upon close examination, the pine cones were convulsing and bulging, with the unquestionable activity of something inside trying to escape. Into our living room. It seems that my baby-sized pine cones were, in fact, a rather active infestation of bag worms. Warmed by our central heating system and the close proximity of Christmas lights, the caterpillars inside of the cone-shaped brown sacks had thawed out and were now seeking to relocate. One had fallen to the floor, and the dachshund had already sailed down the hallway with it like a trophy.
There was only one thing to do. I opened up the sliding glass door to the patio, picked up the tree, and heaved it out into the yard. A beaten man, I went out and retrieved the stand and the ornaments, and then dragged the fallen symbol of my pioneer spirit to the back of the yard where the caterpillars could refreeze in peace. I would later bone up on bag worms, and discover that I would have to pull all of the bags from the tree and burn them, since they were filled with eggs laid by the female worms, and would only go on to infest the evergreens in my yard next year. Since the tree was already chopped down anyway, up the whole thing would eventually go in a blaze to Tannenbaum Valhalla.
Some traditions fade away, while others die a much quicker death. My holiday tradition took just long enough for a drive to the Hardware Hut to be smothered completely. I now sit puffing my pipe and sipping my nog, looking at a wire and plastic thing masquerading as a tree. It did just take five minutes to set up, with no fuss, and no risk of arrest for criminal trespassing. If I squint a bit and sit across the room, it looks just like the real thing. The evergreen-scented air freshener completes the illusion. And there will be no pine needles to clog the vacuum up, and certainly no bagworms to evict. I can pack it up the day after New Years, and no one will ever know. But it’s just not the same.