It was the week before Christmas, and all through the town my new bride and I walked the streets with a frown. Searching, without success, for an affordable tree.
I thought we didn’t need one. We were nearly broke. We’d be leaving town shortly to spend the holidays with her family in Western Mass. And our tiny slum apartment didn’t have room for a proper Christmas tree.
She, ever the romantic, disagreed strongly. We had our first fight.
Two days before our departure, I found myself wandering the streets in despair. Over my failure as a husband and provider. Over my tragic, penny-pinching pragmatism. Can this marriage be saved?
Then I spotted it: a big, fat double-balsam, taller than a reindeer, green as a hundred-dollar bill. And the price? Zero.
My discovery was in a dumpster. It had likely been discarded by some rich neighbor, who’d left town early to pass the holidays in Aspen or Cancun. Delighted, I combed off the remaining tinsel and dragged home our first Christmas tree. Best one ever, my wife joked, clearly impressed.
Until I told her where it came from. We had our second fight.
I know what you’re thinking. Here comes a pallid imitation of Kevin O’Hara’s graceful holiday stories, which have appeared in this newspaper nearly every Christmas since Santa was a freshman at St. Joe’s. But, the other day, I recounted my tale to the master, who generously insisted I publish it. Anyway, his will be better.
(O’Hara’s new book, “A Christmas Journey: Sixteen Stories,” is available at local bookstores and online at berkshireeagle.com/store.)
After that disastrous first Christmas, I spent small fortunes on first-class trees, shipped in from Maine, Montreal and Malmo. They’d barely fit through the door, require miles of lights and ornaments, need watering every day. But, each one, my growing family would agree, was the best tree ever.
Nonetheless. After a few weeks, I’d heave the desiccated carcass into the trash and think: Is this really what Christmas is about?
Some historians would say no. This whole evergreen-in-December thing was originally a pagan custom. Ancient societies believed winter arrives because the sun god sickens and doesn’t begin recovering until the solstice, Dec. 21-22 on our calendar. They’d celebrate that event by displaying evergreen boughs, foreshadowing the color of spring. Christians in 16th-century Germany adapted the custom by decorating a verdant tree and investing it with their own religious significance.
On this side of the Atlantic, folks were skeptical. Because of the pagan connection, officials in Massachusetts and other colonies banned Christmas trees. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the custom was widely accepted here — and, inevitably, twisted to our own tastes. More than 80 percent of Christmas trees in the U.S. today are artificial.
My arboreal ambivalence returned the other day, when I learned that some troubled homeless guy in Manhattan allegedly had burned down the Fox News Christmas tree, not all that far from the site of my providential dumpster. The network broadcast hours of coverage, blaming the incident on liberals, woke elites, critical race theory. Is that what Christmas is about?
But, then I realized: Yes, the American tradition of overrated, overpriced, quickly discarded Yuletide evergreens clearly is a fundamental part of our seasonal soul. After all, Christmas trees are the focus of our holiday gatherings. They witness our songs, our reunions and our generosity, as well as our orgies of consumerism, gourmandizing and problem drinking. And then, a week or two later, these silent sentinels die for our sins.
My wife and I are not poor anymore. We usually have wonderful, multiple Christmas trees. But, this year, I didn’t see the point.
The kids and grandkids will be elsewhere, busy with their COVID-constrained lives. We ourselves are about to head south for the winter. Maybe we could give this holiday a pass — as in The Waitresses’ 1981 classic, “Christmas Wrapping,” one of my favorite seasonal jingles. Chorus: “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. But, I think I’ll miss this one this year.”
Miss Christmas? My wife was not pleased when I suggested skipping at least the tree part. I could feel the old argument coming on.
But, then, she disappeared into our frosty garden. Returned minutes later with a 3-foot-high rosemary bush, snow on the leaves and branches drooping, having exhausted itself giving spice to our meals this year.
We strung lights and ornaments on my bride’s salvaged treasure, giggling like newlyweds. Best tree ever.