We bought a medium-sized tree at our local garden centre — the place was almost sold out, as we’d procrastinated so much — and, after only a 10-minute struggle in the parking lot, we managed to stuff it into the trunk, with only minor damage to the tree. Our injuries — small scrapes on her hands from the rough bark and some little puncture holes in my wrist from pine needles — did not need medical attention.
As we drove home, I amused myself by singing a new Christmas carol I’d composed. The catchy melody was inspired by the theme song to the Tom & Jerry cartoon. I didn’t have any lyrics yet, other than the chorus: “O, it’s the jolly time of year / Jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly / O, smell that Christmas cheer.” I thought my lyrics were amusing and would sometimes interrupt my carolling to giggle. By the time we got home, I was still singing and my wife, for some reason, was in a cranky mood and had a headache.
I suggested that she take a nap, while I go downstairs to research my article on breasts — i.e. hours spent Googling images of the supermodel Fabio and the Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks. But no, she wanted to get the tree up right away. (“She” being my wife, of course, not Ms. Hendricks, who was probably in Hollywood at the time.) “It’s easier while our kids are at school,” she said. (Again, “she” refers to my wife, not C.H., with whom I have no kids.)
My wife was stressed, because she remembered all the problems we’d had in previous years, trying to get previous trees up, so she wanted to get it over with. I knifed the plastic bag off the tree while she went to get our new Christmas-tree holder, to replace the one that had been so unsatisfactory last year and the few years before that. Unlike our old tree-holder, which was made of white plastic and shaped like a flying saucer, the new contraption was made of red and green plastic and was shaped more like a brick with four supportive legs. When we tried to stick the tree into it, we found that the tree-trunk had an extremely wide base and wouldn’t fit. About a hands-width up from the cut, the trunk narrowed. I borrowed a power-saw from my father-in-law (our own power-saw recently broke, during my basement bathroom renovations) and I cut off the thick part of the pine trunk. Sawdust and little woodchips were all over the floor and the pile of presents. My wife went for the vacuum cleaner and I said, “It’s not that bad a mess. Why not just leave it for now?”
She snapped, “I already have a basement bathroom that looks like an earthquake zone! I’m not also dealing with a living room that looks like a lumber-yard!”
Sensing that she was a bit tense, I offered to clean the mess while she relaxed on the sofa with a cup of soothing herbal tea, but she insisted on vacuuming — doing it so violently, in fact, that she banged the vacuum head on the coffee table, causing a Lego dinosaur to fall off and break apart on the floor. I picked up the multicoloured plastic Scandinavian bricks and tried, unsuccessfully, to put them back into the shape of a dinosaur. But that was beyond my skills; I couldn’t even remember what kind of dinosaur it had once been; I’d have to wait for my six-year-old to come home and help me.
Trying again to put the new holder onto the end of the tree, we found that now it fit, but the little plastic clamps wouldn’t grip the tree tight enough. The tree would always tilt to one side of the other. For almost 20 minutes, I tried various band-aid solutions, including nailing the plastic clamps to the tree and wrapping it all with many layers of duct tape, but the tree never stopped leaning.
So, we went back to the old U.F.O. model Christmas-tree holder, which attached to the tree by means of three blunt-tipped screws with O-rings at the other end. You twisted the screws into the wood to grip it. Like previous years, it worked, but not that well. When the tree was up, I poured water inside the holder to make it heavier and we stood there, looking at it.
“Is it straight?” my wife said.
“Kind of, I think,” I said. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, it’s straight enough,” I said. I looked at my watch. “Hey, I’ve got to get the kids from school.”
When the kids were back home, we decorated the tree. That was the fun part. The not-so-fun part was at 6:17 the next morning, when my wife and I woke to the sound of huge, clattering CRASH! from the living room.
“The tree,” we both said, rolling out of bed.
Then, the sound of our youngest son crying. In the livingroom, joined by our sleepy-looking two older sons, we saw that the tree had toppled beside him. Broken decorations and pine needles and broken pine branches were all over. The floor was soaked with spreading water. It took a while for our little guy to calm down and explain that he’d “only touched it a little bit” and then it “all fell over for no reason.”
My wife was looking at the mess. I knew she was exasperated by the idea of all the cleaning that needed to be done. And she told me how sad she felt over the loss of some decorations she’d been hanging on the tree for years and “can never be replaced.”
So all of us, even the youngest, got to work cleaning up the mess and getting the tree back up. Some of the best decorations were gone but it still looked nice. My mood was fine but my wife still seemed upset. “What’s going to happen to the tree next? Pine beetle infestation? Lighting strike?”
“The tree will be fine,” I said.
“Hmph,” she replied.
The next day, when she came home late from work, I asked her to come to the livingroom. I pointed at the tree: “Look.” I had installed hooks in several of the walls, with strands of thick fishing line connecting them to the trunk of the tree. “Those will stabilize the tree, so it shouldn’t fall.” All around the base of the tree were some old judo-mats I’d bought at a yard sale years ago and had never used before now. “If it does fall, these mats will soften the impact. You can relax — I’m handling the tree crisis for us both. I know you want this tree safe and I’m on the job for you. And guess what?”
“Even if this one does fall and is completely destroyed, we have a back-up. Look.”
The kids and I guided her to the back window. We pointed into the yard. It was dark.
“I can’t see anything out there,” she said.
So I went onto the porch and waved my hand in front of the motion-detector light. When it went on, the bright light beamed across our back yard.
I went back inside, where my wife and kids were silently looking out the window. While my wife had been out, I’d bought some new decorations at a dollar store: 6 shiny red balls and 6 glittering mirror-balls. Now, they were hanging on the lower branches of the 10-year-old oak tree in our back yard that we’d planted on the day of our wedding. In the glare of the porch light, the red globes hanging on the oak glowed like Rudolph’s nose and the disco-ball ones glittered like frozen supernovae.
I said, “That’s our back-up Christmas tree, in case of emergency with the main tree.”
She smiled, saying, “Thanks, my jolly survivalist. Nice.” Looking back at the living room, she said, “Though I’m not sure I appreciate all these big metal hooks drilled into the walls.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take them out and paint over the holes, right after Christmas.”
“You promise you’ll fix these walls right after Christmas?”
“Well, soon after. I want to finish the bathroom renovations first, which shouldn’t take long.”
It looked like she wanted to say something, maybe something skeptical or sarcastic — but she didn’t, just shaking her head, then giving me and the kids a hug.
It is, after all, the jolly time of year.