It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Our house is no exception. The day after Thanksgiving we climbed into the attic to retrieve our ghosts of Christmas past. Now the Griswold outdoor light display is out in full force and it looks like a bunch of elves were doing keg stands with eggnog and puking up tinsel all over our living room.
Just the way we like it.
But there is one critical item we couldn’t retrieve from the attic. I hesitate to mention it here, as I like to refrain from political-speak on this blog. But circumstance warrants that I state my position clearly.
We are “real tree” people.
Putting up an artificial Christmas tree is akin to giving St Nicholas a wedgie. No. Make that an Atomic Wedgie. In fact, the only Christmas sin worse than an artificial Christmas tree is replacing “Silent Night” with “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” as the closing hymn at the candlelight Christmas Eve service. If God had intended us to celebrate Our Savior’s Birth with a plastic icon in our living rooms, He would have sent Jesus Christ to Earth as a department store mannequin.
Trust me. It’s in the Bible.
But God laughs when we get all high and mighty. And somewhere, our Creator is having a good chuckle, because the Dannemillers forgot to factor the real tree into our Year Without A Purchase.
Each year, we normally stroll through the wooded majesty of the local Home Depot forest to select the perfect specimen for our home. It’s a family tradition dating back centuries to the Dannemillers of old who also lacked basic skills in hunting, sawing, and shoe-tying. But this year, we could not simply plunk down $29.99 for Christmas convenience. Such a purchase would certainly be a violation of the rules.
Ignoring our neighborhood covenant restrictions, I walked out our back gate and took a short stroll through the thorny woods behind our house. I spotted many potential Christmas branches and Christmas bushes. Several cedar trees showed promise. One in particular was about sixteen feet tall. Since we have a twelve foot ceiling in the living room, I figured I could just chop it off at the four foot mark and haul it home. Then I came to my senses. First, the tree had very little greenery below five feet, leaving it with an appearance closer to a Christmas Coat Rack. Second, this tree was not on our property, and, if caught, I would certainly get a NastyGram from the neighborhood association president.
But third, and most importantly, the land behind our house is an overgrown old cemetery, complete with a handful of slate headstones remaining intact. No lie. Not that I’m superstitious, but this tree was most likely planted in honor of someone buried there. And if I were to chop it down and take it home, our Holiday would be plagued by the same sort of zombie magic that visited the Brady Bunch on their Hawaiian vacation when they removed the Tiki Idol from the ancient gravesite. (cue music)
That’s when a friend suggested we might be able to use the “experience” loophole. We could go to a tree farm, support a local farmer, and cut down our own tree. As soon as she mentioned it, I had visions of an idyllic family outing. We could all get bundled up, trudge up and down the rolling hills of a Tennessee farm in the brisk winter air, select the perfect tree, cut it down together, drag it back to the farmer’s barn where his wife would have hot cocoa waiting. We could all snuggle up next to a glowing yule log and talk about our favorite Christmas memories.
And thus begins an adventure of overblown expectations.
It started before we left the house. Temperatures outside were hovering in the low 40’s, yet our son insisted on wearing less clothing than the average Hooter’s waitress. Drives me insane.
When we loaded the car with the kids and their two cousins, Jack and Ava, the arm wrestling and poking began almost immediately. So I began dishing out the unrealistic threats.
“If you can’t behave, we just won’t have a Christmas tree. Santa will just have to put presents outside under the tree in our front yard. And what if it rains? Too bad. They’ll all get wet. And it will be a result of your poor choices.”
It worked as well as you might have imagined.
We finally made it to the tree farm where we were greeted by a cheerful guy wearing an orange apron, which reminded me of the same ones they wear at Home Depot, easing my transition. He was incredibly friendly, saying, “Welcome back!” This happens to me a lot. People often think they know me, even though we have never met. I chalk it up to the fact that I bear a striking resemblance to “The Safe One” in every boy band on planet Earth. Or Steve, the host of Blue’s Clues.
*You were in Backstreet Boys, right? The smiley one? What happened to your awesome hairdo?
* You were in N'Sync, right? The smiley one? Yes, indeed. I would definitely trust my daughter with you.
Our host was really helpful, showing us where we could find the “cut your own” trees, giving me a quick sawing lesson, and offering us hot chocolate. Rather than diving into the treats right away, Gabby and I held them for ransom, like any good parent.
“If you behave while we are finding our tree, then we’ll have hot chocolate and candy canes afterward.”
The kids immediately took off running like wild banshees, grabbing and shaking every tree in the “cut your own” forest. Even the fragile Charlie Brown-sized ones.
* Cousin Jack about to put Jake in a Figure Four Leg Lock.
As our guide explained, the trees came in several varieties.
First was the Norway Spruce. A beautiful tree with firm branches for holding heavy ornaments. But when Audrey stuck her hand in, it came out looking like she shook hands with a cheese grater. I believe the needles of the Norway are commonly used for sewing buffalo hide and applying prison tattoos.
Next was the White Pine. This is a very fragrant tree with supple greenery. Unfortunately, it’s freakishly long needles give it the appearance of Don King’s hairdo.
Finally, we sampled the Leyland Cypress. Though it doesn’t have needles, it has a perfect conical shape and a deep green color. At least that’s what we told ourselves when we got tired of the kids acting like crazy people.
We walked the rows of trees looking for just the right cypress. But Jake would have none of it.
* Jake with his pick. Chubby Tree.
“I want the chubby tree!”
“The chubby one! Right over here!”
Jake was standing by perhaps the most oddly-shaped Christmas tree in the history of trees. It looked as if it had been fed a steady diet of simple carbs and unfiltered Camel cigarettes, stunting its growth.
“Buddy. That’s tiny. Besides, it’s one of the pokey trees. Come look at this one over here.”
“But I want this tree.”
I looked at the price tag. $30.
“Jake. Look how short it is.”
“I know. I like it!”
“We have a Christmas tree rule. The tree has to be taller than mom and dad.”
“Yep. That’s the rule. Just made it up, but it’s the rule.”
Jake complained while we scouted the cypress. Audrey helped us find just the right one. I fell to the ground and started sawing the tree. Jake whimpered in the background. My lack of lumberjack training led to a painfully long process. My sweatshirt got muddy. My shoulders burned. My nose was running. Jake’s sadness grew with every back-and-forth of the blade. He was attached to the chubby tree. Like it had saved his life in Vietnam or something. By the time our cypress finally fell, he was crying.
And I was fresh out of compassion.
* I'm nursing a newly-acquired shoulder injury while Audrey helpfully points out a stain I just made while laying on Jake's jacket.
We dragged the tree, our kids, and their cousins back up to the barn. Our cheery hosts pointed us toward the hot chocolate. Audrey pulled the handle on the dispenser.
More weeping, which we tried to soothe with candy canes. Jake commented,
“That’s a tiny stupid candy cane. We have bigger ones at home.”
I maturely responded by grabbing the tiny cane from his hand and offering, “Well you can wait ‘til we get home then!”
Meanwhile, smoke from the yule log was blowing directly at us, giving me a mild asthma attack. The kids started sneezing.
The fresh pot of hot chocolate arrived, and the kids immediately filled their cups and inserted stir sticks. Although we had given the warning, Jake sipped through the straw and burned his mouth. No tears this time. Just anger.
“It’s too hot to drink!” he screamed. If he could fight a Styrofoam cup, he would.
Meanwhile, Audrey comes running up to me. In tears. She had filled her cup and went over to the fire. When she tried to sit down on the stump adjacent to the fire, she lost her grip and spilled cocoa all over her pants. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I believe the resulting stain resembled the AntiChrist.
I felt her leg, which was still pretty warm. The cocoa was hot enough to cause tears, but not hot enough for a lawsuit.
I patted her on the back. “It’ll be fine, honey.”
“No it won’t! My pants are ruined, and I don’t have any more cocoa!”
Gabby saw me struggling like a fallen wrestler in a WWF tag team cage match and came to my rescue. She took Audrey to the car to look for a spare pair of pants. I turned to see Jake spill cocoa all over his white shirt.
Audrey returned wearing a pair of mismatched sweatpants. I handed her a cup of cocoa that I had been cooling while she was changing. For some reason, she grabbed a plastic stir stick and jammed it into her mouth.
“What happened, Audrey?”
“Part of my mouth came loose and is hanging down!”
Trying to be as patient as possible, I said, “Well honey. That sometimes happens when you jam sticks into your mouth.”
It sounded better in my head than it did in the air in front of my face. There was an unspeakable rage bubbling inside me, fueled by impatience. It was so strong that I could see the remaining trees beginning to wilt. Somewhere an elf was having an aneurysm.
“Let’s go!” I said, through gritted teeth.
Jake chimed in, “But I’m not done with my hot chocolate.”
“Well drink up, because we’re leaving.”
I turned and saw Gabby holding her camera toward me.
“Here. Settle down, Dannemiller, and take a picture with me and my girls.”
She had somehow consoled Audrey, who was now playing with her cousin Ava. I begrudgingly grabbed the camera and started snapping pics. Ava and Audrey started climbing all over Gabby, giggling and having a grand old time.
I wanted to say, “What the hell do you think is so funny?! Stop having fun! This trip has been a royal pain in the ass, and you should behave accordingly!”
But thank the Baby Jesus I didn’t say it. Instead, I just kept snapping. Capturing genuine smiles. Joy. Happiness.
* My girls with little Ava, smiling among the mismatched sweat pants and yule log smoke.
And this is the photo that would normally make it to Facebook. The one that make life look perfect. Because, frankly, when all the $#!% is hitting the fan, the last thing you feel like doing is taking a snapshot.
But we should.
Perfection is boring.
I ask you: Which story is more likely to get told and retold, becoming a lasting family memory that brings laughter for future generations. The one that begins with, “Remember when we went to the tree farm and cut down the perfect tree?” Or the one that goes, “Remember when we went to the tree farm and Jake cried because we wouldn’t buy a midget Christmas tree, and daddy got a rotator cuff injury, and Audrey spilled cocoa all over her pants and got that scar on the roof of her mouth from the stir stick?”
I vote story #2.
This Christmas, I beg you to let go of perfection. No one cares if the dinner plates all match, or if the cider isn’t warm enough, or if a strand of lights burns out. Those accidents happen. But it’s what we do with those accidents that make them extraordinary. The spirit we bring.
Last time I checked, the Savior’s manger was not decorated by Pottery Barn. It was one of the most chaotic, smelly, messy places in Bethlehem. But we’re still telling the story. Two thousand years later.
Joy-filled and grateful.