By Mark Aldrich
How (not) to cut down your own Christmas tree.
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Tree trimming was my least favorite type of trimming when I was young. I still lack the eye-hand coordination required to decorate a tree correctly; in fact, I believe that almost every tree I have attempted to decorate was quietly fixed upon my departure from the vicinity of the tree.
A beloved girlfriend one Christmas credited me with the expansion of her notions of tree decoration. She said, “You’re the first person I’ve known who does not put all the decorations on the ends of the branches,” which is true, I sometimes place them on the middle or sometimes closer to the trunk; and second: We found that I had overloaded one section of the Christmas tree with the same color ornament (albeit at different depths on the branches!) and this needed to be quietly fixed.
Christmas can be a challenge for someone so rarely festive, like me.
One winter’s day long ago, a dear friend enlisted me in a project to cut down a real live Christmas tree from a local Christmas tree farm so that her son could experience a Christmas just like the one she and I had never, ever, ever, never had.
Now, the sum total of my experience with freshly cut Christmas trees came one night in the 1990s when I attempted to purchase one in a parking lot from a seller who was asked by the police to pick up his trees and move it along just seconds after I handed him some cash. We did not receive an “Everything Must Go Because I Was Just Busted” discount, which was too bad. Nor did we get a tree, which was worse. (Our cash payment went into an evidence bag, pinned to a branch at a depth that I found aesthetically proper.)
That was the year in which I thought that “All I Got for Christmas Was an Anecdote” would be a popular T-shirt idea.
Oh! And there was one Christmas season in which a friend had cut down or purchased a tree that was taller than her house and several of us actually used the geometry lessons that I had been convinced I would never, ever use in real life to angle it into place without removing her roof or insisting that she move. Her work desk in the attic served as the star on the top. And there the tree remained until spring when we employed those same geometry lessons in reverse to remove it.
Back to the year in which I cut down a Christmas tree. Neither my friend, her then seven-year-old son, nor I knew what it would take to cut down a live, six-foot-tall or smaller tree, so we brought the only saw that she knew she had in her house. I believe it was one that her uncle had rejected forty-five years earlier for one that was actually sharp; now, all these years later, it had become neither sharper nor rust-free. We then drove to a tree farm in Dutchess County, New York. I have chopped wood plenty of times, and I have helped take dead trees down—neither of these experiences served me on this day.
The first task one faces when one cuts down a fresh Christmas tree is to find something to occupy the seven-year-old son of your friend—I thought that if I allowed or invited the child to select the tree it would preserve the friendship with his mom. The next task is of course failure in the negotiations with the seven-year-old to select a tree that is not atop the steepest, snowiest slope the farthest hike away.
We passed happy people with skis almost as far up as our future tree was located. Almost. I did not have skis. My feet were shod in the same pair of sneakers in which I did everything. Of course, most everything I ever did unfolded indoors. These sneakers lacked structural integrity, but my friendship with the child’s mom became all the integrity I thought I needed. My soon-to-be almost frostbitten toes still would like a word with my ego.
Many people will ask the question, “Should I cut two notches to make a V or should I attempt to cut the tree straight across?” I know that I asked it, but not out loud or in the presence of someone who could supply the answer. We were very high up the slope, after all.
With my tiny, rusty saw and with no one to hold the other side of the saw, I started to notch one leg of a V. The blade sliced some bark off and did not penetrate the green wood underneath. The snow had already penetrated my shoes, though. The trunk was no thicker than two inches wide, if that—hey, I’m no tree-ologist! so I don’t know how big it was—but it was quickly apparent that I was going to need help.
With that in mind, I put all my efforts into driving away my companion and her son with my grumpy “attitude.”
After an hour alone with my future Christmas tree, my inner debate over a straight-through cut versus a V cut had produced several partial starts—some up, some down—all the way around the trunk of the tree. Instead of a strong V, I had notched something like a lowercase w but one less useful than that, partway to the center of the tree. Partway.
“What’s taking you so long?” My friend returned and we commenced to saw straight across just like a pair of lumberjacks, because the project had become too much of an epic, and we then discovered together that there is nothing quite as unifyingly unsatisfying as the sound of a tree that will not come down no matter how far one has cut through it until the tree is ready—philosophically and morally ready deep in its spirit—to come down. Nothing rejoins a pair that is mid-bicker quite like a mutual frustration.
The tree eventually came down. I accompanied it down the slope … okay, I admit that I rode it down the hill like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove. When we left the house, I had not reminded my friend or her seven-year-old son to bring rope to tie our bounty to the roof of her car, so we drove home with it sticking out one of the backseat windows. In my lap. Covered in snow and beside an open car window, I did not catch a cold that season. DISCLAIMER: This is not sound medical advice.
That was my one Christmas with a fresh tree. Question: Why did I pay someone for the opportunity to do the work myself?
* * * *
My family had one plastic tree for twenty or more Christmases. It was a well-constructed one, a bare metal trunk with a two or three hoops to hook in each individual branch around the tree. It actually came with an instruction manual. Our Christmas tree and boxes of ornaments occupied several boxes in the basement; the annual production of “putting up the tree” was my introduction to grown-ups without the memory skills to recall from one year to the next the locations of things they put away in the same box in the same place every year. And now I am that grown-up.
Then as now, I am sure that my mother and father found it necessary to re-position my ornaments; I swear that something happens to me when I approach a tree, ornament in hand. I have hooked ornaments into my own shirt buttonholes when I swear the tree was my target. Just as I wanted to cut my one live tree down in a single graceful and strong swinging and sawing motion, a Paul Bunyan in my fantasy, I seem to always want this ornament in my hand here and now to be the first, the last, and the only one needed to make this year’s tree the complete and perfect Christmas statement. I want someone to exclaim, “This is the most Christmas ever!” Christmas brings out the perfectionist in all his mistake-prone grumpiness in me.
Thus, the only part of the decoration process that I relax and enjoy is the practice of throwing tinsel everywhere—on the tree and near the tree—and the tradition of placing the angel on top. (That is an unsung rite of passage, the moment the family notices one is tall enough to top the tree with a star or angel.)
One of my family’s angels was a cardboard seraph with glued-on glitter that had started to peel off and thin, stringy blonde hair. Like a combover. Its halo was glitter glued in a circle on that hair, as well, not even on a wire that held it above her head. It was a broken angel. But you see it was our angel, the one my sister and I thought of as ours for some reason, and when nicer, more expensive-looking, angels found their way into our house, they were always relegated to lower branches. Our combover angel always sat on top.
My family’s philosophy that one always roots for the underdog extended to angels.
That perspective may be the best, the longest lasting, gift I received from my family.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning newspaper columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season. His website is TheGadAboutTown.com.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.