One of my fondest Christmas memories from childhood with my family was going to pick out our Christmas tree.
I stress the “picking out” part because it typically went downhill from there, but that part was magical and merry.
For many Christmases we went to the Rib House restaurant lot (which is no longer there), at the start of The Hill, before East Haven gives way to Branford. There was a big sign that read “Christmas Trees” with a huge arrow beneath it pointing to where we could get to parking...and picking.
As the youngest of four I cannot say that my voice was often heard, and when it was, one of my three older siblings would promptly declare the tree that I’d just pointed out “a Charlie Brown tree” and they’d all laugh. Every. Year. (This is not the stuff of childhood trauma; it was an annual joke and I was always prepared for it, with it living on to this day.)
Truth is, we all agreed on our annual tree fairly easily back then, before real trees gave way to real life, and divorce and kids moving out and, ultimately, fake trees left only the memories of these family excursions.
My brother bailed out early on the “picking out the tree,” leaving it to my sisters and me, and I was completely incapable of getting the thing on top of the car without him. With needles everywhere, it was like wrestling a porcupine. My oldest sister Laurie’s frustration with my whimpering always led to her grabbing the prickly thing from my clutches and launching it atop dad’s Ford Falcon herself. We began referring to her as the guy from Brawny paper towel commercials. That joke lives on to this day, too.
We’d laugh the entire time, and sing Christmas songs the way home, without the radio even on. One year I recall we snapped up our tree from the TJ Maxx parking lot in East Haven and bemoaned the fact that it was a shorter drive, meaning we had time for “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You,” by Billy Squier, tops.
But home is where the happy ended.
You see, from there my father would have to whittle the stump of the tree in order to get it to fit into the tree stand, which looked similar to a bear trap. Things got ugly. Quick. Every year like clockwork.
I can now see where the guy got it wrong right out of the gate. He’d use a butcher’s knife — the one he carved up meat with at the dinner table — to whittle the stump into what size it needed to be in order to sit right in that old-fashioned Christmas tree stand. It was a recipe for disaster — with nicks to his fingers, the foulest of language, and tutorials from my mother that were — let’s just say — ill-timed. It always led to a heated exchange between them.
Of course, it didn’t help matters that my father would attempt to do all this with a cigarette dangling from his lips, puffing away while stretched out across the living room floor, while my brother held the tree in place, hovering just above the stand.
“Now!” he’d bark, and my brother would lower it down, but it wouldn’t fit. Up it’d go again, and more carving ensued.
“Now!” Dad would bark again. Same result.
One year I made a suggestion that astonished the whole lot of them: “We should just get a fake tree.”
Blasphemy! My father looked at me, his expression a combination of embarrassment and disgust. “Never,” my siblings agreed, in unison (a rarity).
I endeavored to elaborate: “Not because of this whole thing. I just want the tree up longer. It’s only up for two weeks.”
I meant it. I couldn’t care less about my parents’ war of the words. More often than not we all found their zingers comical, although it did get tense enough a time or two. Sometimes it carried over into dad unspooling the lights and trying to get them on. Equally as ugly.
Thus began my campaign for a fake tree. As the years passed my case got more fleshed out, and was heard with more open minds. But it always came back to two things: The first was that we’d be losing the whole “going to pick out-a tree” experience, which was as much a tradition as it was fun. The second was that fake trees had no scent. We’d lose that wonderful pine smell. Admittedly, I agreed with the latter. I did not want to sacrifice that. The former — heck, everyone was older now, and we’d done it more than enough, plus my sister was the one driving us by this point, our parents sitting it out, no doubt preparing for battle.
Then one day my mother came into the house and dramatically plunked down an object on the table in between us all, without saying a word. It was an aerosol can. It was a spray designed to make a fake Christmas tree smell just like a real one.
The tree has gone up on Thanksgiving night ever since, but I never bragged about my victory. I viewed it as one for all of us.