The Nation's Pulse

An Authentic Christmas

In praise of real Christmas trees.

By 12.23.10

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Last week the New York Times reported that "well over 50 million artificial Christmas trees will grace living rooms and dens this season…compared to about 30 million real trees."

If you are like me, "grace" is not a verb that comes readily to mind when you think of artificial trees.

I can't remember the last time I had a real tree, though it was doubtless during the Carter Administration. On principle, I desire genuineness and authenticity, not phoniness, which is why -- come to think of it -- I was no fan of the Carter Administration. It's also why I never warmed to the idea of a fake tree.

Even as kids we longed for authenticity, and our maturing sensibilities were offended by even the idea of an artificial tree. It was, however, our insistence on an authentic Christmas experience that would eventually backfire on us.

It was early December, in the mid-Seventies. After considerable lobbying on my behalf, my father conceded to drive us kids to one of those Christmas tree farms where -- for a rather large fee -- the farmer allows you to saw down your own tree, lug it a quarter of a mile through the slop, and tie it onto the roof of your car, all while said farmer stands idly by roasting himself by a fire, licking his thumb and counting his profits.

Needless to say, it was great fun for us kids. My father took it all with his usual forbearance, at least till we got home and the tree was found to be infested with hundreds of bugs -- hungry, blood sucking pests that had been awakened (and were none too happy about it) by the dry, warminess of our living room fireplace. The tree was immediately and unceremoniously dumped in the alley, and, next day, replaced with an artificial one.

And what a poor excuse for a tree it was. Today's nine-foot, eighty-pound, pre-lit downswept faux Hunter firs might be mistaken for the real McCoy, but, in the 1970s, artificial trees resembled nothing so much as broomsticks pockmarked with drill holes into which one joylessly jammed anemic wire branches.

This time, our protests fell on deaf ears. "You can get a real tree when you move out," said mother, who had earlier placed the same restrictions, first on a dog, and, later, on a motorcycle.

SOMEHOW, WE NEVER quite got around to it. Not the dog, not the motorcycle, not even the tree. The years passed, we went away to college, moved into our own slacker/bachelor pads. When the holidays came around, we'd think, "What do I need a tree for? I'll just spend Christmas with the folks. They'll have a tree. Not a real one, god knows. One of them pre-lit, downswept Hunter firs, but a tree nonetheless."

And so it goes. Then one day you look up and you are middle-aged and engaged, and your fiancée is saying, "Wouldn't it be fun to get a real Christmas tree?" You can tell by her look that it's not really a question so much as test of your suitability, compatibility, and mind-reading ability.

Which brings us up to Friday night, when the future Mrs. Orlet and I went tree shopping.

Every holiday season, Boy Scout Troop #6 sponsors a Christmas tree stand in the parking lot of St. Pius Church. Who knew? It's a fine, well-fenced-in tree lot, evidently to keep at bay all those Grinchy Christmas tree thieves. (I didn't even know we had boy scout troops in the inner-city, but I guess learning survival skills makes even more sense here.)

It was a week before Christmas and there were maybe fifteen trees left. We found one that stood about five feet tall, and wasn't too Charlie Brown looking, and gave the troop leader $40, which he claimed would go toward a camping trip -- presumably outside the city limits. Then the scouts --many of them with sub-Sahara African accents -- wrestled over who got to throw the pine into the back of the pickup. Then we drove home happily humming carols.

When we got home we cracked open a bottle of wine and decorated our first real Christmas tree together. It's a good looking tree, if I do say so myself. Well worth the effort and expense. So what if the majority of people prefer fake trees? I find that, like J.W. Goethe, I rather like being on the margins. Germany's greatest writer once claimed that everything great and intelligent is in the minority. I'm guessing he would have preferred a real tree, too.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.