Christmas tree are a bizarre custom. Although the Druids had worshipped trees for centuries, it never occurred to them to invite one up to the house. But ever since Martin Luther bewildered local pagans by dragging a highly flammable evergreen into his house, decked out with burning candles, this tradition has begged the question of how to select the perfect tree? You want the right shape, freshness, height, fullness, room for ornaments, with that subtle hint of pine freshness that doesn’t conjure up images of disinfectant.
Denominational differences abound when it comes to Christmas trees. The orthodox believe that you must actually chainsaw that sucker yourself, while conservatives hold that real Christmas trees only come from holy ground– like Michigan. Reformed believers even recognize the legitimacy of artificial trees, so long as they’re green. And of course there are those dangerous cultists who believe in multi-colored flocked trees.
Even though the supermarkets claim their trees are fresh, I know for a fact that they start cutting them some time in May and keep them on life support for several months. That’s why I prefer cutting down my own tree, although this limits you to local varieties.
The trek to the woods quickly becomes a family tradition. In Florida however, it’s likely to be an extremely sweaty and sticky tradition. Chopping down a tree and dragging it through dusty terrain with pine tar all over you, when the temperature and humidity are both 98 isn’t exactly Currier and Ives. Only one year out of the last 20 was it cold enough to bundle up and take along hot chocolate and marshmallows. Mostly it’s fudgecycle and salt tablet weather.
When we first started chopping our own Christmas tree we lived near a national forest and it only cost a dollar to get a permit for a sand pine. Unfortunately sand pines are not especially attractive. They have no shape, branches twist all over the place, and large pine needles stick out in wild unsavory clumps. To get any semblance of the sought-after inverted cone shape, you need a sand pine at least 25 feet tall and have to stand back about 500 yards.
Over my wife’s strenuous objections, I chopped down such a tree the first year we went. When we got home the tree was about three times taller than our house. Undaunted I lopped off most of the top and the bottom saving the mid-section of the tree. Any suggestion of a shape dissolved and what remained resembled a flat rectangular wall of twisted pine branches. It became the source of great amusement to our friends. I would says, “Hey this the latest thing. You don’t have one of those old-fashioned triangular trees do you? I believe they have one these Christmas tree walls at the White House. Plenty of room for ornaments you know.” They were not deceived.
The next year I was determined to get a normal looking tree to redeem myself. Again the sand pines were terrible with no shape and bald spots all over them. Eventually inspiration struck and along with the tree, I cut several additional branches from nearby trees. At home I sharpened the ends of these extras and inserted them into holes I made in the tree trunk with my Black and Decker electric drill. These new branches were far too weak to support ornaments and kept falling out, so I heated up an old saucepan full of hot glue and cemented them to the trunk. I was able to assemble a respectable sand pine in about 45 minutes.
My ersatz sand pine resembled an aluminum Christmas tree that my father bought at a July clearance sale at Walgreens when I was a kid. My family hated this tree so much, it was finally banished from the house and my father was reduced to displaying it on the front porch. The tree had about three dozen thin metallic branches with what looked to be strips of aluminum foil glued to them. You couldn’t string regular Christmas lights on it because of the shock hazard, so it came equipped with a spotlight and a revolving plastic wheel made up of primary colors. The tree appeared to change color as the wheel turned. The tree also had a special stand that played Silent Night and rotated rapidly in the opposite direction from the spotlight, resulting in a seizure producing sensation of motion as it simultaneously violently flung ornaments into the street. After a few hours of this, the plastic color wheel mercifully melted into a chromatic pool of goo.
The only problem with my virtual sand pine was that after a few days, the grafted branches dried out, all the needles fell off, and they all turned brown.
Eventually we moved and located a local tree farm. I’m not sure what kind of trees they had, but they were all well shaped. The hippie tree farmer who ran the place used a “tree shaper”– a bizzare Weedwacker contraption that hacks the trees into perfectly shaped cones. These shaped tree were so full, they were almost solid. When we got home we discovered it was so dense, it was virtually impossible to hang anything on it. Instead you sort of laid the ornaments on the side of the tree. Decorations would slide off it like hot fudge off a Teflon sundae.
After the hippie went into rehab and the tree farm went out of business, we started patronizing a large commercial farm. They have a Santa Claus, hay rides, gift shop, tree shaker and bundler, petting zoo, and even a winter scene for photo opportunities. Everything is a little tacky but I don’t mind some peeling paint or red-eyed diseased goats, so long as I can buy an icy coke right on the premises. My only objection is that the place is next to an old chicken farm. You can see the long coops and while most of the chickens are gone, they have left about 2 feet of memories under the buildings. On a hot Florida day when the wind is right, it isn’t Christmas in the air.
Some Tree Tips
Of course chopping down the tree is only the beginning. Securing it to an appropriate tree stand is always tricky. I suggest installing the stand before you take the tree in the house. I know of at least two people who, in frustration, have actually nailed their Christmas trees directly to the living room floor and at least one person also nailed multiple guide wires to “keep the damn thing straight.”
Keeping dogs, cats, and kids out of the Christmas tree is another challenge for the novice. Play pens, shock collars, and water spray bottles are recommended. Use trial and error to ascertain the best permutation for your situation.
Determining the correct additive for Christmas tree water is perhaps the major controversy of our times. Sugar, corn syrup, lemon-lime soda, alcohol, aspirin, and plant food have all been suggested, as well as the various commercial preparations now available. The notion that something sweet is helpful is based on the glucose drip analogy. Aspirin and analgesic additives are based on the idea that cutting the tree down creates pain and trauma. I once read that a botanist suggested that trees should be anesthetized before any type of tree surgery such as trimming or transplanting is initiated. I suppose the alcohol additive is along the same lines. Give your tree a stiff drink before you hack it down. My rule of thumb is; “Don’t give your tree any food or drugs you wouldn’t take yourself.”
Finally there is the disposal of the tree. People have different traditions relating to this. Some take the tree down immediately after Christmas. Others wait until New Year’s Day, Epiphany, or even later. I vote for New Years Day. A recent development is the Christmas tree body bag. I recommend just dragging the tree through the house and out the font door. That way for months afterwards you can enjoy those pieces of tinsel that stick to the carpet, welcome mat, and your lawn thus extending that special holiday feeling as long as possible.