By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, Dec. 24, 1989
Christmas trees. Some of my most intense childhood memories have to do with Christmas trees. When I say intense, I’m not talking magic – I don’t mean twinkling lights and “Joy to the World.”
I’m talking galoshes. Galoshes caked with mud and slush. Fingers and toes numbed by the December cold.
I’m talking driving the family Ford from Christmas tree lot to Christmas tree lot in the Sunday afternoon darkness, my father and brothers and I growing ever more desperate in our search for the perfect tree.
I think of driving home, windows open, my arm and my brother’s arm stuck out into the sub-freezing night, our mittened hands gripping the tree by its sticky trunk.
I think of my father driving the dark, slippery streets, taking care not to make the sudden move that would loosen our grip and throw the tree into oncoming traffic.
I think of the disappointed silence in the car. Once again, we had settled on a tree that was less than perfect.
We were a tough group to satisfy, of course. My mother, who waited at home, dreamed of a full tree, a big one. So did we kids. My dad dreamed of something smaller, something more within budget. What we generally brought home was a balsam fir from the forests of Canada, a scraggly thing by today’s standards, thin of trunk and sparse of bough, and always a little on the short side.
In the Canadian wild, a balsam fir sapling had to compete with its peers and elders for sunlight. The competition made it gappy. Here, an empty spot. There, an oversized branch. The trees of old never quite compared to the plump and opulent Christmas trees we saw on holiday greeting cards.
Our tree, inevitably, leaned this way or that. When placed in its stand in front of the living room window, the light of day shone right through it, betraying the tree’s true, spindly form.
But things have changed since my Detroit childhood. The 1980s have produced – along with perestroika and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – the perfect Christmas tree.
The perfect Christmas tree is now a dime a dozen and $45 apiece. Thanks to machetes and gas-powered hedge clippers, the 1989 tree is shaped to a flawless cone. Just like in the pictures.
Typically, this comely tree is a Douglas-fir. The Douglas-fir is the No.1-selling tree in California today, according to Sharon Burke of the California Christmas Tree Growers Association.
It is not a true fir tree. It is a Pseudotsuga menziesii and it is grown on tree farms. Once or twice a year it is shorn of its nonconforming twigs and branches. This makes for a thicker trunk and denser braches, says Burke. One sweep of an 8-foot hedge clipper and, presto, the ideal tree.
Trouble is, these new-fangled trees are so plump and bristling with branches and needles that there is precious little space left over for our ornaments.
Ornaments should dangle. There should be space between branches for dangling. But no. Now that the perfect Christmas is a reality – for those who can afford the $45 – decorating a Christmas tree is more like decorating a bottle brush. Or a toilet bowl brush.
Ornaments don’t dangle from these perfect trees. Sometimes ornaments won’t even stay put. They pop out sideways and fall to the floor.
At our house, it’s Jon’s job – like my father’s before him – to take the kids out to buy the Christmas tree.
While they’re gone, I dig around the basement – like my mother before me – for the tree stand, ornaments and ornament hooks. And like my mother before me, I usually find that once again I am short on hooks.
But, this year, Jon had bills to pay. My father’s job fell to me.
I pried Peter and Christina loose from their dreidel game. They had found the Hanukkah tops packed away with the Christmas crèche and were spinning for the Holy Family. Nun gets you nothing. Gimmel gets you Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus.
At the Christmas tree lot, the children played hide ’n’ seek amid the Scotch pines, leaving me to choose the 1989 tree on my own. The responsibility weighed heavy.
I walked past the pines, the Douglas-firs, the plantation firs, the bottle brushes and the toilet bowl brushes. Nothing looked right.
But what was that over there? A stand of noble firs. A merry patch of old-fashioned Christmas trees.
A wide one with graceful branches caught my eye. The pale December sun shone right through its slender limbs as in days of yore. Its trunk crooked from left to right and left again. On one side, a branch was missing.
I stood it up next to me for the litmus test. Sure enough. It was too short.
Perfect. I had found my tree.
© 1989 The Oakland Tribune Reprinted by permission.