Category Archives: christmas tree

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part Fin

img086I come by my issues legitimately.

The first Christmas DC and I enjoyed together was nothing but sweetness… except for the Christmas tree  (this yuletide thorn has festered just under the skin from the first Christmas to the last).  God had just brought us through a very difficult health issue and we had our new son, Wesley, to enjoy.  I was overwhelmed by the Lord’s kindness and was feeling well enough to get our tree.  I bought a very respectable fir of some kind, brought it home and dragged it through the doorway.  That’s when our tree issues began.

“Which corner do you want to put it in?” I innocently asked.

“I don’t want it in the corner, I want it in front of the window,” she responded. I laughed a superior little snort of a laugh.

“We can’t put it in front of the window.  It HAS to go in a corner.”  I pointed to the corner that I thought would work well.   “That corner is perfect.”  I started dragging it to the spot.

“It has to go in the corner,”  I grunted as I leaned it against the wall.  I turned to her.  It was a teachable moment.  “If you don’t put it in the corner you won’t have anywhere to tie the strings.”

“Umm.  What strings?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes.  “The strings that you have to tie around the trunk to keep it upright.  Without strings it will fall over.”

She picked up the newly purchased tree stand and pointed at it with just a hint of annoyance.  “Let me introduce you to the tree stand…  John, this is the tree stand.   Tree stand, this is my stupid husband.  They call it a STAND for a reason!”  She ran her hand underneath the words “tree stand” like Carol Merill on Let’s Make a Deal.

I was so completely exasperated with “this woman that Thou hast given me”  (a woman who obviously knew nothing of trees or stands) that I wrenched the stand from her hands, tore it open, slammed it on to the bottom of the tree and set the entire thing upright.

“Make yourself useful and hold the tree for a second.”  It was not the kindest way to speak to the mother of my child.  I crawled underneath the tree while she held it.  I tightened the screws with a smug superiority like I was just about to prove to her and to the entire world that tree stands are a farce.

“Okay, now let go and watch what happens,” I said with as much practiced patience as I could muster.  I braced myself to be crushed by the weight of the tree, but nothing happened.

“I said to let go.”  She knelt down from across the room so she could see me under the tree and waved at me.

I reached up surreptitiously and pushed on the trunk.  It swayed a little, then firmly twanged back into place.   I shook it like I was killing a chicken.   I was dumfounded.  It didn’t fall over.  The world as I had known it my entire life shifted on its axis.  Everyone knows that you have to secure your Christmas tree to the wall.

In case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Why I was decorating the tree in my underwear is still a mystery to me.  Also, in case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Growing up our trees were never plastic, but they were always fake.  Dad loved big, bulky, bulbous trees that looked like they were frozen in time, mid-explosion by high speed photography and that kind of tree wasn’t to be had in our forest – or anywhere on the planet – so Earl improvised.

Using an electric drill and a generous pocketful of screws and twine, Dad would combine the best parts of two or three trees into one.  He would chainsaw one side of the donor tree, press it against the trunk of the regular tree and then bind them together with the twine and a few carefully placed screws.  If there were any bare spots left, holes would be drilled and extra branches would be “grafted” in and then tied to the upper branch with green yarn to keep it from sagging like old skin.

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After everything was in place and the trunk had been braced with 2x4s, Dad would pound two 16 penny nails into the wall, bend them over a bit and then lash the tree to them.  It always felt a bit dangerous to me, like the tree would somehow break its bonds and hunt me while I was sleeping, chanting, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!”

To say that Earl was not a perfectionist is a bit of an understatement.  He was the original Mr. 90 percent and “good enough” was his go-to phrase.  He used to tell the story of cutting stringers for the stairs he was building in our new house.  Every night he would try and fail and then bring the scraps out into the yard and burn them so no one could see his mistakes.  He was not a perfectionist, but he was way too proud to let people see his imperfection.  I think that’s the reason we covered every inch of our tree with garland and tinsel so no one could tell what he had done.

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But the tinsel and garland was no ordinary Mylar affair.  When I was young, tinsel and garland were made from glorious strands of pure molten lead.  Feathery strands of glittery lead that had the heft of a fishing weight and the aerodynamics of a jelly fish.  I was always encouraged to lay them on a few strands at a time, but could never manage it.  The real fun was to wad it up in a ball, throw it as high as you could to bounce it off the ceiling and watch it separate like a bottle rocket and fall in heavy clumps all over the branches.  They were supposed to look like icicles, but they looked more like moldy birds’ nests.  The gray lead marks were still on the ceiling when we moved.

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The lights on our tree were huge and bright and had reflectors behind them that cast a beam of light that would blind you if you stared at them too long.  You had to look at our tree out of the corner of your eye, like you would a solar eclipse, so you wouldn’t burn your retina.  Dad had to use the gas generator to power it because the rest of the lights in the house would dim every time the tree was plugged in and he was afraid it would start a fire.

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And, it was glorious.  It was like Las Vegas had come to visit for a few weeks.  Sure, the lead caused profound hearing loss and I had to compensate for the blindness in my left eye, but our tree was big and hideous and unlike any tree in the neighborhood.  It fit our family perfectly.

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part 2

There was no snow this year in Bethlehem.

There was no snow this year in Bethlehem.

“Do not wrestle with the Baby Jesus!”

I’m not exactly sure when I realized that my kids had completely missed the meaning of Christmas, but I had an inkling that it had happened as I watched all four of them wrestling on the floor.  It was like the quarterback had dropped the ball – only it wasn’t a ball – it was the baby Jesus they were scrumming over.  It was a melee of screaming, crying, writhing humanity as they battled for the glory to be the one to put the Prince of Peace, the Wonderful Counselor, the baby with the upturned arms onto the waiting bed of ceramic hay.

I did what all good parents do: I took the baby away from them and gave it to the one who cried the loudest.  Molly got to do it.  It wasn’t that she deserved it, quite the opposite, but if she hadn’t been chosen she would have pitched a royal tsunami and to be perfectly honest, I was still a bit afraid of her at that time.  To keep the festive dog-pile from happening again, I wrote her name on the creche box and then explained to “all the dear children in thy tender care” that every year from now on we would each take turns putting the Savior of the World onto the manger.

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The decking of the halls always begins with the placing of the creche.  A pad of cotton is placed upon the piano top because everyone knows that it was snowy when Jesus was born.  I then put together the lean-to that Mary sits under and place it on the cotton pad.  Each child in turn then gets to choose and place each figure on the “snow.”  It goes round and round until the “Child of the Year” gets to place baby Jesus on the “hay.”

It used to be a sweet and touching tradition, but in recent years it has turned somewhat preposterous.   It seems that the ox and the ass are prone to wander into the manger where they try to eat the scarf off Mary’s head and the three wise men huddle in the corner, either throwing dice or trying to decide on which play to run next.  Joseph, stuck on the outside of the shelter and far away from his wife and son, looks disinterestedly at the camel like he wonders why it only has one hump.  Mary alone sits calmly amidst all the chaos and along with the cow, serenely looks at her baby as he lays on the manger with no blanket covering him even though the ground is covered in snow.

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Dream Crusher loves Christmas like no other holiday and wades into the fray with her ruler, slapping hands away from the scene with the practiced rhythm of one who would have been a good nun.  She quickly restores order and peace is to be had once again in Bethlehem.

There is Christmas music and it’s not tedious, but rather nice and soothing for the first few minutes.  The boxes are brought up from the storage room and D.C. takes out all the things she wants displayed this year and the kids get their ornaments out and ready to place on the tree.  Every year we give each of the kids an ornament and at this point in our lives we are awash in festive tree adornments.

When the kids were little they were always excited to decorate the tree, each placing their ornaments as high as they could reach.  When they were finished, the tree looked very bottom heavy, but it was beautiful and in their eyes it sparkled magically.  The next morning the kids would come downstairs to look at the tree and see once again where they had placed each ornament, but disappointment would quickly set in because in the middle of the night the Ornament Fairy had come and moved them uniformly around the entire tree.

“Mother! Why did you move our ornaments?!” they would whine in unison.

“Well, you didn’t put them in the right spots.  The Ornament Angel made everything perfect.  Doesn’t it look better?”

The tree from the bad place looked unlit even with every single strand of lights we owned draped loosely around it.  It was like a black hole from which light could not escape.  I am convinced that the National Weather Service noticed a distinct change in the ebb and flow of the tides because of the gravitational pull from our tree.   It took me over an hour to sling the lights around and over its carcass, but still I was forced to head to the store for more lights and even then it cast but a faint glow in the gloom of night.

This giant sequoia also ate ornaments for lunch.  There was such a gaping maw of greenery that once you put an ornament on a branch there was a chance that you would never see it again.  The Ornament Fairy didn’t stand a chance.  There were just too many bare spots and not enough ornaments to move them to.  D.C. was so distraught that she almost allowed me to put tinsel on the thing, which we all know is the cardinal sin of tree trimming.

When it was finally done everyone stood back and took a good hard look at it, but aside from the obvious bare and dark spots there was something terribly wrong.  The darn thing looked crooked.  I climbed underneath and undid the screws while the kids pushed and pulled on it, but no matter what we did it still listed to one side, like a ship taking on water.  There was nothing to do about it, but enjoy it as it was.  Not only was the tree big, it also rode the short yellow bus.

Everything was fine until we were about a week away from Christmas.  We were coping and had adjusted our routine to living with a tree.  We took turns using the one chair in the living room you could get to without crawling under the branches.  We watered it on the hour every hour for 18 hours a day because Dream Crusher demanded that it be hydrated.  She did not want this tree to dry out and spontaneously combust and blow the doors off of the house.  I think the thing actually put down tap roots and grew a few inches when it lived with us.

Moses prophesied ten plagues that would descend upon Egypt.  We experienced three of the ten, four if you include spiders.  There was so much entomological activity taking place within our tree that we were afraid the EPA would find out and declare our tree a wetland and never let us remove it.  The cobwebs hung from the chimney with care and spiders skittered around the ceiling like something out of a Steven King novel.

The gnats were so thick that a black plume arose from the tree if you brushed against it.  I got so used to swallowing the occasional gnat that I actually gained an appreciation for their taste.  The locusts didn’t swarm, but their smaller cousin, the cricket, made its presence known every hour of every day.  It got so bad that we almost killed an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on our doorpost just to protect our firstborn.

On the second day of treemas my true love gave to me: a phone call telling me that the tree had fallen over.  I was at work, but she just wanted to let me know that water was everywhere and that she hoped the presents weren’t ruined.  There was a thick hint of sarcasm as she told me she “just wanted to let me know.”

I raced home and was able to get the tree upright and lashed to one of the ceiling beams.  That tree was going nowhere.  We filled the stand with water, but it was so dry that tree drank faster than we could keep up.  I must have put two gallons in it before I realized that the stand had cracked when the tree fell over and all of the water had spilled all over the presents again.

I may have said a bad word.

I won’t go into the gory details, but I bought a new stand, unlashed the tree and with the help of my son, a pair of 2x4s and some back strength, we lifted the tree high enough to allow Allison to crawl under and arm wrestle a new, industrial-sized stand to the bottom of it.  By this point I hated this tree more than D.C.  It was possessed.

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Christmas finally arrived.  We all crowded around the outside walls and the girls passed out the presents. As usual, there were way too many and the kids each piled them like a fortress.  We always open our presents one at a time (D.C. says it’s to make the day last) and as we went from child to child opening presents one thing became apparent.  The wrapping paper was sticking to everything.   It was like static electricity on a balloon only it wasn’t static – it was pitch. Everything underneath the radius of the branches was covered in it. The judicious watering had cause the thing to “bleed” like a stuck pig.  There were little ant hills of pitch, built drip by drip, rising from the floor like mini stalagmites.

I was done.  Christmas was dead to me and while the kids opened their presents in the dining room, I took what ornaments I could find off the tree and chainsawed the thing into tiny pieces and dragged them to the backyard.

Pitch burns really, really well.

This year’s tree.

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The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part 1

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We are not the Charlie Brown type

The Dream Crusher and I have been married for close to 25 years and in that time we have had our fair share of disagreements.  I hesitate to call them arguments because we’ve never really had a true “argument.”  Oh sure I’ve made her cry a few times, but it’s nothing to the overwhelming number of times she has made me cry.  If she weren’t so darn stoic I’m confident my antics would bring her to tears more often. But as it is, she usually laughs in the face of my “fury” and ends up spooning cold water onto my petty grievances and because of that (and because I’m really, really afraid of her), we get along as well as a Rabbit and an Eeyore can be expected to get along… except at Christmas

As I’ve gotten older this season of good cheer, Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Black Fridays and Kings named Wenceslas just seem to irritate me more and more. When I was little Christmas was a magical time of throwing up on Christmas eve, sleepless nights,  mounds of presents and heaps of food (including one shriveled orange and six hazelnuts in the toe of my stocking so that mom could feel good about the rest of the stocking being filled with candy).  I relished calling my friends to gloat over the new Fat Track I got and to make fun of the new underwear they got.  There was always deep snow and a roaring fire and the afterglow of a binge belly filled to make up for the emptiness of the night before.

Then came adulthood and responsibility and the never ending tundra of whiteness that the singer is always dreaming about on Christmas, but doesn’t have to shovel.  It isn’t always a powdery snow that sheds so easily off the backs of excited travelers as they enter the house in their Norwegian sweaters and balaclavas.  Sometimes, most times, it’s slush and it always melts to dull brownness.  Too much money is spent on too few kids, but  everyone seems so happy because of it.  But then the GI Joe action figures are inadvertently called “dolls” by my wife and the boys refuse to play with them and the dream of my sons having the exact same magical “Kung Fu, action- gripped” childhood that I had also melts into dull browness.

It is the season where someone is always getting their wings or telling George Bailey that she’ll love him ‘til the day she dies or wondering why they have to have so many kids (in that moment I am on George’s side).   There is the ever present  BB gun with a compass in the stock and the Bumpasses’ dogs and shooting your eye out and someone is always getting their tongue stuck to a flag poles and no one ever knows where Flick is.

Cindy Lou Who is always cute (though she now plays in a punk rock band) and the Grinch’s heart is in a perpetual state of growth because Christmas isn’t about the presents, it’s about friends.  There is always a kid in the street ready to get the biggest goose in the world from the butcher shop down the street and Tiny Tim is always tiny and he always lives, but there is no mention of that other thing, the X of the season.

Washed up and drug addicted singers are constantly singing of the baby Jesus or new shoes or wanting Santa Baby to give them something expensive and Michael Jackson is always freaked out because his mom is making out with Santa next to the Christmas tree (wrap your head around that one and see if it doesn’t explain a lot of things).

The avalanche of Christmastide is continual and relentless from the day the month chimes November and doesn’t stop until I get to the point where I wish Jesus had never been born and then I realize that this season has nothing to do with Jesus and I swear that next year I  will donate all the money I would have spent on Christmas to an orphanage in Bangladesh and then I have a hot buttered rum and things somehow get better.

And there is always the ever present Christmas tree.  Some of our biggest disagreements have had to do with the Christmas tree.  The “issue” rears its ugly head the moment we all pile into the car and head out to wrangle us a Christmas tree.  For some reason, every year, Dream Crusher has this idea that our Christmas tree needs to be the size of a small topiary – just tall enough so that we can smile for the camera as we put the angel on top without standing on a chair.

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Her husband and children, who are thankfully made of sterner, Irish stock, have dreams of vast vistas of Christmas trees that need extension ladders in order to put the angel on the peak.  Since we are legion we get our way.  In Dream Crusher’s mind she’s trying to keep the leg lamp out of the window, except that our lamp is a Christmas tree with a trunk the size of an East German woman’s thigh – a thigh so massive that it needs to be tied to the beams in the living room to keep it upright.

Last year’s Christmas tree was a definite low water mark in our marriage and almost caused the cancellation of Christmas in the O’Bryan household.  Weeks before we were to get our evergreen object of worship, Dream Crusher began her annual campaign for a slightly smaller tree.  But all I heard when she brought up the Christmas tree was something on the order of blah, blah, blah tiny tree, blah, blah, blah microscopic tree.  I’m sure she had her reasons for not wanting a big tree, but I had a hard time hearing myself think with all that yakking going on.

When the time came to finally get the tree and we were pounding holes in the snow with our feet out on the tree ranch, I realized that this was one dream that wasn’t going to be crushed for we had inadvertently stumbled onto the secret steroid tree farm where all the trees were the size of Redwoods.  Kelly begged us to turn around and allow her to buy one from the tree lot.  I was having none of it.  We were on an adventure.  We were making memories.  You don’t get memories from a stinking tree lot! Besides, for some strange reason, in that expanse of sky, all of the trees looked amazingly reasonably sized.

The kids and I picked out a remarkable tree that like King Saul, stood head and shoulders above all the others.  I plopped onto my back and shimmied under the tree to get at the trunk with the saw.

“John?” D.C. asked in a quavering voice.  “Are you sure this is the tree we want? I can’t see your feet.”

It was too late.  The proverbial axe was already laid against the trunk and i was already on my back sawing like a madman.  There was a loud crack like a howitzer had gone off next to my head and the tree started to tilt.

I yelled “Timber!” but I was so muffled by the branches that I knew no one could hear me and I prayed they would run in the right direction.  When the tree crashed to the ground I felt like I had received an answer to the age old question of whether a tree makes a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear it.

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It took a good thirty minutes to drag the beast to our Subaru and then another ten to wrestle it onto the roof.  The entire body of the car sagged and moaned as the tree engulfed our tiny red Forester.  I climbed through the back and rolled down all the windows so I could lace the rope through the interior because roof rack was completely hidden and useless.  There was a small group of children that I heard ask their parents why they weren’t getting a man-sized tree like our family had.  I felt an immense sense of pride when I eased the car slowly out of the ranch, like I had just killed and skinned a moose and was bringing it home for the family to feed on all winter.  Subaru even used the picture of our tree topped Forester to demonstrate how awesome Subaru owners are (true story).

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When we got home I had everyone stand back while I cut the cords holding the tree to the car.  They loosed with a twang like a baby grand piano wire snapping.  The tree leapt from the roof like a freed criminal and took out a rose bush and a gutter downspout before it rolled to a stop next to the front porch.

Undaunted, I trimmed the excess branches off the trunk so I could attach the plastic tree stand.  It should have concerned me when I counted the tree rings and it turned out to be older than I was, but manliness is blind, and with the help of my chainsaw and some judicious trimming I was able to finally sledgehammer the stand to the end of the trunk.  The kids quickly tightened the “thumb screws”  as I leaned against it.

Everyone helped push and pull the baby Sequoia through the front door.  Everyone, that is, but Kelly. She was still lobbying (translated as beseeching ) me to take the vile creature away from her house and return it for a full refund, minus shipping and handling of course.  On we went (ignoring her pleas), sounding like a rowing crew manning the oars, chanting “pull, pull, pull.”  With each chant the tree inched closer to its final resting place, taking molding and paint along with it until with a loud whoosh the branches, trunk and all were lying on its side in the living room.

We don’t have a huge living room; it’s good sized and has vaulted ceilings, but when we wrestled the tree into a vertical position and I had tied her off on one of the overhead beams it filled the entire room – and I mean completely filled.  It was so big around that we literally could not see each other if we were standing on opposite ends of the room.  It was like a bottle brush and our living room was the bottle.

“There,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible as I stood wedged between the branches and the wall.  “Fit’s perfectly.”

Dream Crusher fought her way out of the living room like a small jungle explorer, turned and said, “Yep.  Fits just like a glove.” and then she was gone.

The look in the kids’ eyes was one of awe, sheer awe, like the entire real forest had come to our house for a sleepover.

I climbed under the tree to see if could maybe push it closer to the window in order to give us more room. It didn’t budge, but the blind did fall off the casing. Ignoring the house as if fell around my ears I pulled with the strength of Samson after his hair was cut, but my hands gave way and slipped off the trunk.  Blood flowed freely, but I couldn’t feel it because my hands were frozen.  Even though the house was set to a balmy 68 degrees, the inside of the tree it was freezing.  The stupid thing had its own micro-climate and fog was washing over me from above as the tree warmed from the outside in.

I called for my loppers and when they were firmly duct taped to my frozen hands I began working my way up the back of the tree, cutting every branch as close as I could to bare wood without losing all of the green. With one half of the tree gone it snuggled up nicely against the window.  From the living room side it was beautiful.  However, from the window side it looked like it had been dragged behind the car all the way from the tree farm.

I sat in the couch and marveled at this beauty that God had created.  Pitch and needles and discarded branches were everywhere and the living room looked like a Picasso painting, but we had our tree – the state record for that year I think.

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