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Archive for December, 2015

A Story for Christmas, 2015

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2015

I have written in the past that when I was a kid, my parents had the whole “Christmas magic” thing down like nobody’s business.

When I was young, how Christmas worked for us was this: there would be nothing in our house – not a string of lights, not a decoration, not so much as a single strand of tinsel – all through December. There were these dreadful little electric candles my mother would put in the window, but that was it.

I don’t use the word “dreadful” here lightly. I am fairly certain that while these candles may not have actually been part of the very first batch of electric lights built by Thomas Edison, they were one generation removed from that at the most. These things were ancient. They were cardboard tubes with an electrical cord at one end and a light bulb socket at the other. So when we would first plug them into the wall with their same-size non-polarized outlet – polarized plugs were invented in 1948, if you were wondering – we were sending oodles of electrical current through, more or less, a very small paper towel tube.

So we were passing tons of electricity through a cardboard tube to these little light bulbs that burned so hot you could cook food over them. When I was in middle school we got blinds in all our windows (the last of which I have literally only gotten rid of this week) and the first Christmas we had them we put the candles in the windows with the blinds hanging directly behind them. Because my house was presumably designed by the same blind Spaniard who laid out San Antonio and built by the drunk mule he was riding, the window sills all tilt slightly away from the actual windows, and where the candle bulbs touched the blinds they actually burned through the vinyl slat.

My parents’ solution to the problem of their Christmas decorations setting the blinds on fire – I am not making this up – was to put matchbooks under the candles so they wouldn’t touch the blinds. Polarized plugs were invented in 1948; my research has indicated that safety was not invented until about 1953 and was not accepted as standard practice in this family until sometime in the late 1990s.

But I digress. Christmas magic.

Aside from the incredibly dangerous electric candles, there were no Christmas decorations in our house. Not even a tree. ESPECIALLY not a tree. On Christmas Eve, we would wake up and my sister and I would go out with my father to get the tree. This led to some surprisingly amazing trees. It also led to some unsurprisingly awful trees. There are at least a few years – again, I am not making this up – where my father somehow managed to score a $5 Christmas tree. This is less impressive when you recall that we used to put our tree up on a platform, so it had to be fairly small; if I remember correctly the tree couldn’t be taller than my mother, so call that about five and a half feet, give or take. Even still – a five dollar Christmas tree.

We would bring the tree home and put it in a bucket of water in the garage. (This was back when it was, you know, cold on Christmas.) We would do some family-kid-Christmas stuff, watch a special or two, and at bedtime my father would read us Clement Moore, the same red book I still have, and my sister and I would go to bed.

When we would wake up on Christmas morning we’d get my parents up, they’d make us wait at the top of the stairs for a minute or two, and then we’d come downstairs to find that Santa had gone completely apeshit while we were asleep.

The tree would be up on the platform, and lit, and decorated. There would be ribbons and lights and tinsel and decorations all over the house. There would be stuff EVERYWHERE. It would be like one of those Christmas stores exploded in our living room overnight. There would be piles of presents, and everyone’s stockings hung up on the mantle, and just JESUS. And my parents would say, “Santa did it all while you were asleep!”

All this happened because the second they determined that we were asleep my parents would run around like maniacs putting up decorations and wrapping presents and, most importantly, setting up and decorating the tree. The tree was the big thing. And as I have said before – one reason we went to get the tree on Christmas Eve was that waking up to a fully-decorated tree that was in a bucket in the garage when we went to bed was the cornerstone of my parents’ execution of Christmas magic. When you are six years old, this is absolutely mind-blowing. When you are 38 years old and know how it was done, it’s STILL mind-blowing.

The other reason we got our tree on Christmas Eve was that my father was really, really cheap.

When I was in high school my mother’s aunt gave us this artificial tree that I absolutely hated. Hated. HAY-TED. And even that we didn’t put up and decorate until Christmas Eve. It was what we had for a long time until my father finally relented in 2010 and agreed to go back to a real tree so long as we actually got it and had it up for a good chunk of the Christmas season. The agreement we came to was that we would buy the tree two weeks before Christmas.

On December 10, 2010, my bathroom fell into my living room right on the spot where the Christmas tree would go.

We delayed getting the tree until a few days before Christmas.

But finally we had a real tree again! And we would forevermore. Since then we have figured out a nice new Christmas tree tradition: the tree goes up about two weeks before and we put the lights on it, and then we do the actual decorations – the glass globes, and the stuff I’ve brought back from vacations, and the things me and my sister made when we were in grade school – go up on Christmas Eve.

This year, though, was the first Christmas where I was fully lord and master of the castle all by my lonesome. (I like to think of the cracked walls and creaky floors and dodgy wiring as unruly serfs.) But still! I certainly wasn’t going to back down. Everyone is welcome to do what works for them, of course, but for this Christmas traditionalist it is Real Tree Or GTFO.

About two weeks ago, when I got back from Vegas, I set out to get my Christmas tree.

Getting a Christmas tree is easy. In fact, it’s a little TOO easy.

I’m not going to lie to you – these last few years, buying Christmas trees, I have gotten some profoundly bad trees. But they are REAL trees, god dammit, and every year I am resolved to get a better tree, one that won’t die within hours of bringing it home.

There’s a reason I keep resolving the same thing: I’m not very good at this.

I went to a new Christmas tree place this year, thinking that perhaps the problems I’ve been experiencing have been because the places I have bought my trees in years past have had substandard product.

I am finally now coming around to the realization that “substandard product” is sort of the way parking lot Christmas trees tend to go in general.

This year, though, I came prepared. I knew that the most common cause of home death of Christmas trees is that the cut at the bottom of the trunk will sit out too long and clog with sap, preventing the tree from drinking water. I made certain to prevent this by buying a special pruning knife that I would use mere seconds before mounting the tree and getting it into water. And let me tell you, folks: that ain’t a knife. THIS is a knife. The handle is about the size of a lightsaber hilt and the blade is a solid nine inches long with a wicked curve and tons of enormous little teeth. It’s not so much a tool used to saw through a tree trunk as it is a brutal weapon the Predator carries to hunt sentient pine trees.

In the past few years when my trees have died prematurely – which is to say basically every year – I have attempted to make a new cut in the bottom of the trunk with a hand saw. This was a long, agonizing process that usually took a loooooooong time. We’re talking ten, fifteen solid minutes of hacking away at the tree stump – often with lights still on it after I took it out of the stand – but not this year.

This year, I set my tree stand up in the living room and went out to the front steps where the tree was waiting. I balanced it on the wall out there and began my first cut on the bottom of the trunk with the pruning knife.

I cut through the entire thing in about nine seconds.

I stood there and stared at the knife in my hand and remembered Church saying, “I could blow up the whole goddamn world with this thing.”

Now I had read that it takes something like 6-8 hours or more for the bottom of the tree trunk to actually choke off with sap, but I wasn’t having any of that. I hustled that thing right into the waiting stand in the living room and proceeded to put up my Christmas tree on my own.

Have any of you ever actually tried to get a tree into a stand on your own? I know some of you have. I can hear you laughing.

We have an old-school metal stand with a bowl, and four legs with holes in them and a metal collar that eye-bolts screw through to hold the tree up.

The first time I pushed the tree trunk through the collar in the stand and started to get down on the floor to put the bolts through, I had the passing thought, “wait, how does the tree stay upright while I’m down there?”

Spoiler: it doesn’t. I was on the floor for maybe three seconds before the tree fell on me.

This didn’t faze me in the slightest. It was a process, that’s all. I would iterate. So I moved the tree stand back towards the fireplace, pushed the tree through the collar, and then pushed it back farther towards the fireplace so that the top of the tree was leaning mostly upright against the mantel.

I got down on the floor to start pushing the bolts through the tree and had the thought – I distinctly recall this – “stupid tree thought it could beat ME.”

I learned the word “hubris” in ninth grade, for those keeping score at home.

This time I lasted almost thirty seconds before I had to rotate the base to get to the bolts I couldn’t reach and the tree fell on me.

I got out from under the tree and purposefully ignored the alarming number of pine needles that were coming off it and continued to work on my process.

Attempt number three: I would push the tree into the collar, then squat down in a catcher’s stance with one hand on the trunk of the tree and the other screwing in the bolts as best I could without being able to see them. Yes, it probably wouldn’t be perfectly level and the bolts would be a pain in the ass, but that would prevent the tree from falling down on me. And once it was in I could level it at my leisure.

It turned out that it was almost impossible to fit the bolts through the legs of the stand without being able to see them, so I pushed the stand back farther and leaned the tree against the mantel again. My new revision to my process was that I would lean it up again, but this time when I needed to rotate it to get at the other bolts, I would actually stand up and rotate the tree from there, then get back down under it. It would be more time-consuming and mean getting up and down off the hardwood floor more times, but it would keep the tree from falling on me.

If it only takes three tries to get to a perfect plan, I thought, this can’t be THAT hard. I had created a perfect, repeatable process for Christmas magic. I was as unto a Christmas magic GOD.

Crouching next to it, the second I let go of the tree it fell over on me.

I pushed the tree off of me, continued to even more purposefully ignore the even more alarming number of needles I was covered in, and started throwing wild right and left hooks at it while shouting obscenities about the tree’s mother.

I can safely say that punching a pine tree is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. I can hear what a lot of you are thinking right now, and: yes. Worse than THAT. Do not try this at home. You know, like I did.

Once I regained my composure, which took longer than I am comfortable admitting, I came up with a new iteration of my process: call someone else for help. The problem was that help was probably a day or two away at best, and the tree wouldn’t stay up in the stand until then. The tree wouldn’t stay up in the stand for a single goddamn minute. How could I keep the tree watered until help arrived?

I stood in my living room, pensive, staring at the tree. This, clearly, was actually the most important part of the process. On this, my own nascent version of Christmas magic depended.

What did I have that was big enough to fit a tree trunk, and strong enough to hold up a tree, but would also…

My gaze drifted to my right. Towards my kitchen.

Hold water…

I sent a picture of my solution to my father and the exchange went like this:

My father: Is that my crab pot?

Me: If by “your crab pot” you mean “my stock pot,” then yes it is.

A few days later my friend Kevin showed up to help me get the tree in the stand proper and when we pulled it out of the pot the gallons of water I had been pouring in it were still there, along with tons of pine needles, with tons more on the floor.

The tree was dead when I brought it in the house.

“Well,” I thought, “I’ve got a lot of years yet to perfect the Christmas magic process.”

Then I smiled, and thought, “at least I got a really badass knife to play with.”

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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