Riding Shotgun: The Tree from Hell

Man vs. Holiday Conifer, in their annual struggle-to-the-death.

My fiancée-now-wife and I have lived together for nearly three years. Not too long ago I wrote a small piece about how much I enjoy our Christmas preparations and how they seem to me to be a wonderful secular tradition that I look forward to every year.

The man who wrote that was a fucking idiot. He has since been converted to the belief that decorating for Christmas is a lurid physical and psychological torture devised by a hate-filled and spiteful God …

Ahem.

I apologize — my bombast is a little excessive. It is my way. No, I shouldn’t blame Christmas or decorations or even someone else’s silly deity for my distress. Rather, I should blame nature. One tree in particular, actually. I shall explain.

My wife insists on a real tree. Anything less is a blasphemy that makes spitting in the holy fount seem mild in comparison. No plastic, no polyethylene, just good old-fashioned wood and needles and sap. I too believe in the benefits, if not the practicalities, of a real tree. Although I find particular pleasure in torturing her by constantly suggesting, “This year, darling, we’ll get a fake one.” Specifically, I advocate for one of those bright white trees from Wal-Mart, pre-lit and as unnatural a thing anyone could imagine. It’s beautiful and strange in the way that albino rats are beautiful and strange. But nobody wants one in the house.

So, each year we drive my Elantra to a local high school and purchase a tree from the school’s boosters and their makeshift tree lot they erect on the front lawn. The first year, I had to trim some branches with bolt cutters when we got it home so the tree would fit into its stand. The second year, they were nearly sold out, so we got one a foot and a half taller and $20 more expensive than we’d planned. This year, the selection was excellent, and we found one almost immediately. A big, fat green thing that reeked of pine. The perfect thing for hanging ornaments and scattering needles all over the carpet. I even had them cut off a few extra branches at the bottom to prevent the difficulty I had back in Year One.

Oh, foolish mortal, I.

With the tree strapped to the roof of my car, we drove the slow quarter-mile back to our apartment, then got out the tree stand — one of the red and green metal ones, the design of which hasn’t changed since 1954 — and lugged the tree inside. My wife held it up as I guided the trunk into its place in the stand. Or tried to.

The hole in the tree stand was circular. The trunk was oval-shaped. Crap. I had no saw, but I had a Leatherman with a tiny saw attachment. And so I went to work shaving down one side of the trunk — about as speedy a process as chiseling with a toothpick. Twenty minutes, a pound of sawdust, and a sore arm later, we tried the stand again. No go.

This time, I held the tree up and my wife tried to guide it in. She identified two additional places — a small knob of wood that used to be a branch and what was basically an entire side of the trunk — that would have to go before we achieved success. Another half hour with the Leatherman. Much more and the trunk would look more like a stake.

Attempt number three. The trunk actually fit into the hole in the tree stand. At first. But it still didn’t quite reach the bottom — a critical detail for anyone who prefers a tree that won’t totter like a Weeble-Wobble and crash through the dining room window.

It was obvious now that, if I wanted that tree to go into that tree stand, I would need a band saw or a machete, neither of which was readily available. So back to the front lawn of the high school I went — an hour after we had left it, happy and tree-encumbered. “What’s wrong?” They asked. “Don’t you like your tree?”

Their bodies won’t be found until spring.

I came home with blood on my hands and a big, fat green tree stand with a hole wide enough to accommodate a redwood. The tree fit with inches to spare. I was tightening the screws and my wife was holding the tree erect and I was telling her to straighten the thing and she was telling me it was straight and I was saying that wasn’t possible because the trunk was tilted at a 30-degree angle and … I looked up. Into the branches, three feet from the tree’s base, the trunk took a 30-degree turn.

Our tree — our fat, oval-trunked, demon-spawned tree — was crooked.

And it still is. It’s just crooked facing the wall so, unless our houseguests have excellent depth perception and a protractor, they won’t notice. It is also very pretty and covered in lights and odd little decorations that we’ve picked up over the last three years. And by next year — like a mother forgetting the agony of childbirth — it will slip my mind just what a pain in the ass it was, and I will have cleaned the sap from my Leatherman and the sawdust from my hair, and I will venture out once more looking for the perfect little pine.

Still … would pre-lit and bright white be so, so bad?

Article © 2006 by Steve Spotswood