ENID, Okla. — Editor’s note: This column was first published Dec. 19, 2004.
It was always the first big decision of the Christmas season.
We would load up in the car and drive to the parking lot of a grocery store, or a gas station that had gone out of business, and select our Christmas tree.
It was a long, painstaking process, which, after a time, developed a rhythm all its own.
Dad would hold up the tree, Mom and I would walk around it, poking, shaking and trying to pull off needles. Then we would reject it. We always rejected the first dozen or so.
It wouldn’t have been Christmas if we hadn’t. Anything worth having, my father used to tell me, was worth working for. He seemed to forget this dictum every time we went tree shopping.
The trees always had a variety of faults. The trunk was crooked, there was a bare spot on one side, the branches were too thin, the branches were too thick, the needles were too dry — it was always something.
Finally, about the time Dad had reached the end of his rope — a condition indicated by the increasing volume of his grumbling — we selected a tree.
It wasn’t perfect. It never was. But it was ours.
So Dad would carry it over to the man running the tree lot. “You got the best one on the lot,” he’d say. He said that every year.
Dad would fish a few bucks out of his wallet, and he and the tree guy would secure our treasure as firmly as possible in the trunk of the car.
Once we got it home, Dad would immediately take after the thing with a saw.
The trunk had to be cut off, he explained, so that the tree could take in water. After the amputation of an inch or two of trunk, the tree was placed carefully in a stand stained with the sap of its ancestors.
It always leaned. It never failed. No matter how straight the tree looked under the lights of the tree lot, a series of bare bulbs suspended from wires overhead, it always stood crooked in the stand. It must have been some sort of lighting trick pulled by the tree lot owners.
Dad would adjust, and tweak, and even place objects under the legs of the stand, all in an attempt to straighten our tree.
After no small amount of sweat and effort, the tree would be declared “as straight as I can make it.” It still leaned, of course, but the expression on Dad’s face prevented me from expressing that thought aloud.
When he’d had time to recover from the straightening operation, he would put the lights on the tree. After that, it was largely up to Mom and me to do the decorating.
The tree was never right. The branches were too close together, or not strong enough to hold our heaviest ornaments. Ornaments would slip and occasionally fall.
During the years the tree was set up on a carpeted surface, that wasn’t much of a problem. But during the linoleum years, dropped baubles expired with a distinctive crash.
The last touch was the tinsel, which I wanted to throw on in great handfuls, while my mother preferred to carefully place on the branches one strand at a time.
When the last strand of tinsel was thrown, or hung, we switched the tree lights on and stepped back to admire our handiwork. And it was at that moment a miracle happened. That crooked, scraggly, sorry excuse for an evergreen turned into a glittering wonder.
“It’s the prettiest tree we’ve ever had,” my mother would say. She said that every year. And, you know, every year, she was right.
Mom and Dad are gone now, have been for years. My bride and I pull our tree out of a big box in the garage every year, and assemble it branch by branch. It doesn’t dry out, doesn’t drop needles (or, at least, not as many) and doesn’t set off our allergies.
And it looks awful when you first set it up, and is transformed into something magical when the last bauble is hung on the last vacant branch.
The magic is real, even if the tree isn’t.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org