I grew up in a fake Christmas tree family. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, the whole deal. The day after Thanksgiving, we dragged the same dusty, beaten-up box down from the attic, masking tape holding it together, to pull out our tree. This was the ’80s, so pre-lit trees weren’t an option, which meant we always pulled out a few boxes of tangled lights as well. Then as a family, we spent hours bending each branch into shape, assembling the tree, checking the lights, and setting up the stand.
Sound familiar to other fake tree families?
Once our tree was in place, my brother and I would walk over to our grandmother’s house and do the same thing with her fake tree. I can still remember Grandma holding a hot glue gun in her wrinkled, heavily moisturized right hand, leaning in on each branch, gazing through her bifocals, to repair broken branches. I never really knew how old her tree was, but as a kid, I assumed it came to America on the Mayflower.
As an adult, I can say I think I was probably right.
I have to admit, when I think of Christmas, I think of artificial trees. I think of the conversations I had with my siblings and the excitement. However, I also remember bitching a lot. I remember burning my fingers with hot glue and pinching my skin in the wacky hinges attached on each branch.
But once it was all said and done, that tree had a certain character to it, almost like a well-seasoned cooking pot that had soaked up the flavor of a dozen Christmases.
Given all that, it’s almost ironic to think that my wife and I fell in love working together at a Christmas tree lot. The first time I held a real Christmas tree was at Lowe’s Home Improvement as I unloaded them alongside Mel from a semi truck. I remember the smell, and I remember being impressed by my 102-pound future wife’s ability to haul those suckers off the truck.
When we got married, Mel insisted on a real tree, and truthfully, I wasn’t onboard. Partly because I wanted our Christmas to resemble the one I grew up with, but also because the mere thought of buying a dead tree year after year, just to have it drop needles all over the house, sounded ridiculous. I mean, honestly, what a waste of money (and time spent vacuuming up all those needles).
I told Mel this, and she looked at me like I’d punched Santa in the face. “It’s not about money. We have to have a real tree. You can’t have Christmas without a real tree!” she said.
I rolled my eyes, but relented.
I didn’t fully convert during that first Christmas, however. The smell was nice, I’ll admit, but the needles got everywhere. We kept forgetting to water it, so part of it turned brown. I even broke our vacuum cleaning up the day after Christmas.
Mel and I argued over real or fake for a few years. Sometimes we used a fake one, and sometimes we had a real one. Sometimes we even argued over the environmental impact because we are both hippies at heart. I’d tell her that we shouldn’t be cutting down more trees, and she’d tell me we didn’t need more plastic garbage in landfills. Looking back now, it’s funny that we argued about this. It sounds like the environmental impact of both is a wash.
It wasn’t like we practiced two different religions — but close. I imagine most couples where one partner came from Team Fake and the other came from Team Real have had similar tree-related arguments.
It wasn’t until we had children that I started to convert from Team Fake to Team Real. We live in Oregon, and about 10 miles from our home, up in the hills, is a tree farm. In fact, there are a number of them in the area, but this one is the closest. Each year, we go out as a family, light snow all around us, trees lined up in equal rows, evergreens off into the distance, and cut down a tree. The kids help pick it out. The elderly man who runs the place hands me a bow saw, and I build up a good sweat cutting the thing down.
This is not at all like when the Griswolds hiked into the woods to cut down a tree in Christmas Vacation. Think of it as the glamping version of tree chopping. But there is a certain feel to it, a family moment where we all cut down a tree, haul it to our old 2001 S-10 pickup that really only pulls out of the driveway this one time a year.
Then, as a family, we set up the tree. We breathe in the smell. We get sap on our hands, and listen to classic Christmas songs. It’s become our tradition. And I think that’s what a lot of this whole real or fake tree thing is about.
When I was a child, it was a fake tree. Setting that stupid thing up was a surefire trigger for us all to get ready for the holidays. With our family now, it’s all about cutting down a real one.
Don’t get me wrong, 20 years from now, if my son were to write this same essay, he’d probably bitch about how irritating it was for his father to drag him up in the woods and make him take a couple swaths with a bow saw on their new Christmas tree, and then haul it a quarter mile to the truck. But I am confident that he will tell the story with a slight grin because we all do when complaining about our family’s holiday traditions.
That’s the thing with the holidays — it always comes with a long list of pros and cons. But right now, when it comes to the Great Tree Debate, I’ve chosen a side. It’s real or nothing. It’s what we do each year, and I plan to continue to have a real tree for as long as I’m able to cut one down. I’m confident that if you are reading this, you have an opinion on the subject. And I’m confident that it comes down to a family tradition.
But the fun part about this sort of thing is that we all love to talk about our traditions. We love to remember the holidays, so let’s chat. Which team are you on?