Several years ago, Ann and I set about to realize a long-held dream. We were, by God, going to have a Christmas right out of It’s a Wonderful Life, one so chic and trendy it would make Martha Stewart envious, one that might have occurred in an English manor house during the late Victorian period. At the heart of it would be a BIG tree.
We had lived many years in Texas and other places that were never visited by real winter. Between us we’d endured somewhere around seventy Christmases when it was up to sixty degrees too warm to snow. Not anymore. It was a foot deep outside the erstwhile monastery, and it was still coming down. Cold too. Around zero every night.
In the past, we’d seldom had a fireplace, and “the stockings were hung from the doorjamb with care” had never quite satisfied. Well, that pitiable deprivation was behind us. Our historic house in the Adirondacks had not one, but four, fireplaces. (Not enough. Later we would add a Franklin fireplace and an 1896 Glenwood parlor stove.)
I’d always preferred trees with long needles and dense with branches. Still do. Ann liked the kind with skinny little branches, spaced wide apart and the trunk plainly visible. Still does (she says). In a fit of Christmas good will, I agreed that for once we’d have her kind of tree. I promised myself that even if it didn’t have but four or five branches and a total of ninety-one needles, I would spend the entire holidays saying, “My what a beautiful tree.” We sang “O Tannenbaum” as we drove out to the tree farm.
Ann’s eye fell immediately on an Adirondack beauty the size of a small Sequoia, with limbs remarkably dense and thick. It could hardly have been more different from the tree she said she’d always dreamed of but that I’d been too — I’ve forgotten whether the word was “stubborn” or “spoiled” — to agree to.
It took two strong men to move it to the trussing machine. They heaved and tugged mightily to get it to pass through. Branches snapped and the air was filled with the sound of mechanical whining. The men grunted and swore oaths inappropriate to the season. At last, the thing emerged netted with many, many rounds of twine, but hardly defeated, and looking like it might burst its bounds at any minute.
The two trussers drafted another guy, and the three of them hoisted it up onto the top of the Suburban. I tied it on the best I could, but my fingers were too cold to do it properly. Onlookers kvetched under their breath about how “seasonals” (a pejorative term for those of us who don’t live in the Adirondacks year-round) couldn’t even tie a Christmas tree on top of a car. I think they were jealous. Anyway, we drove out with the tree barely hanging on.
I drove the several highway miles back to town at twenty miles an hour, telling myself that the cars behind were queued up there to see the magnificent thing home with proper ceremony.
In our driveway, I waved goodbye to the honor guard and got to work. I reached up to pry it off the car, and that’s when I realized how heavy it was. (A more observant person would have put that together when a third brute had to be drafted in order to put it up there.) It was fresh cut and full of sap, and besides that, most of the snow that had sat prettily on its stately, outstretched branches while the tree was on the lot, had been bound up inside. When a tree has a girth like that one did, it can hold a lot of snow.
I got its trunk over the edge of the luggage rack, and when critical mass was reached, the thing came down easily — right on top of me. Fortunately, the big rocks that lay beneath the snow at the edge of the driveway did nothing really inconvenient, such as snap my spine, but the heavy end of the tree did have its way with my wrist.
I lay in the snow for a few minutes and pleaded with Ann to stop with the questions — are you hurt? — is it your back? – and the tongue clucking, too.
I pulled my glove down a little and sneaked a look at the wound. It wasn’t as serious as it felt. Once I emptied out the pooled blood and tied on a Boy Scout tourniquet, I’d be fine. Meanwhile, I could just leave my arm in the snow and continue the numbing that had afflicted me all afternoon.
Ann, who had a bad back, developed a sudden need for something from the grocery store and left me to deal with the thing on my own.
I had a plan. So I wouldn’t have to pick it up, I would just slide it over the snow, up the steps, across the porch and through the big front door.
Halfway there, I looked back on a trail of needles, globs of dirty snow, and an angry chlorophyll smear. Hmm. It probably wasn’t a good idea to drag it into the house and across the newly refinished floors, brushing as I went the hideously expensive and difficult-to-hang William Morris wallpaper that Ann had given such care to selecting. Better to leave it out on the porch and melt the bound-up snow with a hair dryer. I had never used a hairdryer. I didn’t know that they blew warm air, not hot, and that they do it in a broad, diffuse pattern, not the bullet of heat that I needed.
After an hour or so, it came to me that it would be better to take the tree through the side door into the mudroom, which has a slate floor. There it would rest in state until the next day. I would put up a velvet rope to keep order among the throngs of villagers who would crowd in to view it. Overnight the snow would melt, the thing would become lighter, I’d be able to move it easily, and I wouldn’t drip sticky, melting snow all over the house.
I dragged it up the driveway a few inches at a time, leaving drops of blood on the needle-strewn snow, thereby creating a festive green and red pattern. Just under an hour was required to get it from front porch to inside the mudroom.
I put doormats of various sizes and types in the middle of the floor. Using sandbags, a couple of sawhorses, and odd scraps of building materials, I managed to prop the tree in an upright position. (I can’t recall why I thought that important. It surely wasn’t.) I envisioned the thing neatly drip, drip, dripping onto the mats all through the night, while Ann and I slept the peaceful sleep of an honest squire and his lady. I turned the two nearby radiators to their highest levels and retired to administer first aid and start working on removal of pine resin from my hands. (Later I was told by the people at the Christmas tree farm that the best way to remove it is with peanut butter. I mean to try that one of these days.)
I got up a couple of times in the night and went down to see if the snow was melting. It was. A large and growing pool of nasty looking liquid was spreading steadily over the floor.
Next morning, I put on aggression along with my long underwear and gathered up tools.
Ann and I had still not come to an accurate understanding of how hostile and formidable the thing was. I confidently set out our family-treasure-cast-iron stand, WD 40 to persuade the rusty screws on the stand to turn, pliers, and gloves.
Ann said that we could just do what we did when removing a tree at the end of the season. We’d simply turn it on its side atop a sheet and slide it into the living room where it would reside in majesty in the south-facing bow window until Epiphany, all the while shining its blessing of light down the hill onto the Burger King customers wending their holiday way through the drive-through line.
First, though, I had to reduce the circumference of the trunk so that it would fit into the family-treasure-cast-iron stand. Shouldn’t take long. I got my hatchet.
I wrestled the thing back outside. Not a lot of thinking went into that decision. It was sixteen degrees out there, and the mudroom was already such a mess, I wouldn’t have made it much worse by doing the work inside.
At least it wasn’t difficult to get it out. Once over the threshold, it shot down the slippery steps like an Olympic luge and came to rest on the ice field below.
My plan was to hold it up with one hand and chop away at the base with my other. (I suppose all that cold weather had diminished my ability to think straight.) The hatchet didn’t look like much — a consequence of having been left in the yard the previous autumn and not being seen again until the snow melted in late April. It wasn’t very sharp either. But I wasn’t about to go to the hardware store for a file. Then I’d have to buy a vise to hold it and a work bench to mount the vice on and no telling what else. I was more than a year into renovation efforts before I realized the importance of staying focused and not getting distracted by ancillary projects. That way lay endless trips to the hardware store.
It became apparent fairly soon that my plan was somewhat misguided. On the ice, I could hardly keep my feet, much less hold up a giant Christmas tree while whacking away at its trunk with a dull hatchet. I tried leaning it against the house, but it was no more able to stand on the ice than I was. It slid down, almost severing the phallic tip-top that was perfect for holding a star. I had carefully measured the height of the tree, including the phallus, to be sure that the star would almost, but not quite, touch the ceiling. I lashed the tip back on with fishing line.
I succeeded in whittling down the tree’s base just as full-body frostbite began to set in. I drilled a hole for the stand’s spike and dragged the thing back up the steps and into the mudroom.
Ann came in with a sheet. She’d been busy all morning wrapping gifts. She likes wrapping gifts, and I’m glad. It kept her occupied while I slipped and fell repeatedly on the ice as I whacked at the tree’s trunk. Had she not been thus occupied, I’m pretty sure she would have pointed out that I was in danger of chopping my leg off — a job even a dull axe could manage. (Ann and I differ in our tolerance of risk.)
We rolled the thing onto the sheet, and away we went, bound for the living room. Nothing to it.
I got my legs under me and heaved the giant up and into the family-treasure-cast-iron stand. If it had been a single ounce heavier, I could not have done it. But there it stood, straight and promising and still straining at its fetters like a rodeo bronc, quivering and wild-eyed, waiting for the chute to open. All that remained before putting on the ornaments was to cut the heavy twine that kept it from expanding to its full majestic girth.
Starting at the top, we cut, and branches sprang open happy as kids on the last day of school. Then, about halfway down, the remaining intact strings gave way all at once in a combination of exploding and unraveling. Every remaining branch popped out angrily, spraying snow and ice wall to wall, floor to ceiling. The thing had been no more willing to thaw than a Christmas turkey. In no time at all, puddles of ugly water began forming all over the room.
Ann ran for towels, and I again heaved the thing into the stand. Once again it fell down. The base of the stand had too little circumference to hold it up. Even if it could have, I’d been too cold to reduce the size of the trunk enough so that it was possible to pour water into the receptacle. Water would be essential. Epiphany was a long way off, and until then the tree would reside in majesty midway between the life-threatening dryness of a nine-foot radiator and the biggest fireplace in the house.
We considered the situation as we watched the snow that had refused to melt while in the mudroom with its slate floor turn into sticky little gray-green pools on the newly finished maple floors of the living room. We thought and thought. A guy wire attached to the ceiling? Over my dead body (not that hard to come by, it seemed). New sheetrock had been installed there twice already. A guy wire to the radiator? Yes, but there was nothing else to attach one to, and a single guy wire would be no help. Make a stand out of a washtub full of sand? That would be outstandingly decorative, of course, but I wouldn’t be able to lift the tree high enough to get it in.
We needed help. Father Dan, across the street, was both a priest and a triathlete. Just the man for the job, but he wasn’t home. Neither was David next door. Neighbor Brian had a bad back. Oh well, even a seasonal ought to be able to put up a Christmas tree without sending out for help.
Ann swept wet, sticky needles into piles, aggravating her back condition, and I sucked them up with a Shop-Vac, and we discussed various solutions, and — well — we bickered.
I thought we should take the thing out onto the front porch and leave it there till we could come up with a plan. Maybe someone would steal it. That would solve our problem nicely. Ann was determined — as in clenched jaw — that the solarium was the proper place. We only argue over important matters. Especially at Christmas.
In keeping with the magic of the season, Ann came up with a new idea, a bright shiny Christmas vision that was a variation on my idea.
“Let’s leave it out on the porch for the whole season. We can attach it to the porch swing’s eyebolt with a wire. Put outdoor lights on it. And then get a more manageable tree for inside.”
“Great idea,” I said. Actually, it had been my plan all along.
On the drive back to the city, Ann decided she’d been rash.
“That’s such a fine fat tree, let’s keep it inside.”
“Fine with me,” I said. Actually, that had been my plan all along.
“We’ll just buy an extra-large stand,” she said with finality.
During the week, we found a stand that attached to a four-foot-square piece of plywood and had a large reservoir. Problem solved.
And so it came to pass that at dusk on Christmas Eve, we received a miracle. With snow falling dreamily and angels singing to beat the band, we stood with our backs to the fireplace and admired the BIG Christmas tree we had always wanted. It was beautiful. We felt blessed and content and most of all — this is the Christmas miracle — most of all, we felt free — free not to have to put up a BIG Christmas ever again.
A version of this essay has been broadcast several times on North Country Public Radio. You can listen to it HERE.
It was also published in the Nov/Dec, 2003 issue of Adirondack Explorer.