Breathing heavily now, and struggling to keep from toppling over, I am forced to turn my face bitterly into the foliage, the spiny branches whipping to and fro with the laboured motion. Skin stings and prickles with the spite of a million tiny needles. It’s nearly done, I pray for it to end…But the ordeal is far from over.
Even after manoeuvring the impossibly heavy bulk into position, there comes the painstaking process of shoring it up and wedging it in, to achieve a perfectly perpendicular erection. And then it will need finishing off by hand. It seems to take forever, the day drifts past into a gloomy dusk, and afterwards, even in the soft after glow, it is as if it never happened.
Those bestowed with the honour of sole responsibility for the procurement, transport, installation and decoration of a Christmas tree, may know and dread these feelings of despair, resentment, and exhaustion of which I speak.
Spent, and on my knees, I assume ‘child’s pose’ easing out a spine in spasm, and while my head rests on the carpet I’m deciding which of the bottles on the newly stocked drinks table I’m going to open first. Peckish and wondering when dinner might be, Husband, cat, and eventually children, drift past, and make vaguely appreciative noises, entirely unaware of the tortuous lengths I have just gone to in the pursuit of upholding a baffling German tradition. Blame the eccentric Victorians: Prince Albert, (the one I’m choosing as the repository for all my resentment right now) paid burley lackeys to indulge his penchant for such folkish whimsy. There was probably a Norwegian pine, Douglas fir, or blue spruce in all 775 rooms at Buckingham palace. But it was not until the 1950’s in Britain that this ludicrous pastime of murdering a perfectly happy healthy tree really caught on more widely at Christmas, and what for? So that the family can decorate it and live with its rotting corpse as it disintegrates in the corner of the living room for three weeks? Sounds positively Madagascan when you put it like that.
Owing to the fact that I married The Grinch, it has fallen to me for the past twenty years as Master Of Merriment, to be Designated Tree Person, and in that time I have experimented with a number of different approaches to this infernal chore, but I am yet to discover the magical solution that negates spilling of blood sweat and tears, or worse, onto the living room carpet. Fanciful and nostalgic, I am hounded by a sentimental memory of the plastic tree my parents bought in the 1970’s. Still fresh in my mind I can see it, a little edifice of seasonal Britishness sprouting in a corner of our south east Asian home, presenting a fairytale contrast to the cicada-studded giant rubber tree creaking out over the sides our leafy indoor garden. I was completely intoxicated by the heady aroma of those plastic bracts of bright green cypress warming against the multicoloured fairylights and those silky baubles in rainbow hues gave me palpiations of pure joy. But I know that the reality was my parents facing agonies of frustration each December as they struggled to piece together ten million little hollow socketed branchlets onto larger branches which in turn had to be matched to the correct junction on the ‘lifelike’ knarled plastic trunk. In those days the whole operation was further hampered to distraction by the way old fashioned fairylights would inevitably have stopped working since the previous Christmas, when one or more of the little tubular bulbs had blown, breaking the circuit and requiring a long and painful process to locate the offending bulb(s) accompanied by amusing and original combinations of swearwords hissed under a descending pall of low-level festive anxiety.
To their credit, my amazingly stalwart parents persevered with that bloody tree for decades before finally relinquishing it to the tip with a huge sigh of relief all round. These days they create a stylish and low maintenance statement of seasonal cheer by decking a huge indoor yukka with a few well chosen baubles and a chain of ever dependable LEDs. They have reached Tree Nirvana.
Meanwhile, I continue to tackle the issue with diminishing gusto and the grim conviction that THIS time I’ve cracked it, and won’t need therapy afterwards. When we lived in a tiny cottage it was almost fun to go hunting at the tree nursery and slay a plump little specimen for our bijou living room, but my stubborn insistence on housing it in a galvanized steel bucket, for a Scandinavian look, meant that a disproportionate time was spent finding the right sized brick or log with which to simultaneously wedge the impossibly sticky trunk into position and weigh it down enough to prevent the whole laden thing feinting in the middle of the East Enders Christmas plot twist.
As the house grew, so did the tree, and I eventually relented and bought a curly powder-coated three legged stand in an acceptably Scandi shade of red. But one persistent problem remained: Getting the damn trunk upright in the stand, either by hacking helplessly at the base with a little ineffectual axe, or by jamming lengths of fire-wood kindling down the sides to make it fit. All of this of course involves much swearing, extremely close contact with the evil little needles and a subsequent few days of unbearably itchy arms.
One year, in the January sales, still itching from the arduous disposal of the aforementioned, I thought I would be a genius and buy a state-of-the-art super realistic artificial tree. When December 12 swung round again with alarming velocity, I leapt into action with vigour and optimism, only to discover that the easy to follow colour-coded assembly system was slightly flawed, owing to the fact that the orange bands and the pink bands were indistinguishable from one other. There followed many dark years when I actually needed a drink before putting that tree up. But still I continued to gather an impressive collection of vintage baubles and decorations, each with it’s own little story, combining to generate an eclectic aesthetic harking back to that first tree of my childhood.
Eventually it all became too much and I went back to murdering real trees, but last year, in an act of pure masochistic self flagellation, I also bought a 4’ potted tree. ‘It’ll look pretty in the garden with lights on.’ I thought. And so it did.
But little did I know that it would spend the summer plotting to destroy me.
Meanwhile, adding to my Christmas joy this year, my husband decided last week to bring into our house an eight-week-old lurcher puppy. Taking deep, calming breaths and gazing like a love-sick fool into his adoring brown eyes (definitely the puppy’s, not Danny’s) I vowed not to let it cause me a single moment of stress. ‘Ah-ha!’ I said, ‘I can use that little potted tree and put it on a small table. That way the pup can’t cause too much chaos, and we can all have a very chilled Christmas. Hooray!’ -or something like that.
And so last weekend, when everyone was busy with their own very important lives, I ventured into the garden to fetch the demon tree from the cold. It had grown quite a bit and, though I tried hard to loosen it, was well and truly wedged into it’s jolly red pot. It also seemed to weigh more than a baby elephant, but I wiped the pot as clean as I could, shook out the hibernating ladybirds and summoned my inner Geoff Capes, grunting and gurning my way across the yard with it. (See opening paragraph) I opened the French windows cautiously, knowing that Puppy has found his favourite defecating spot just outside them, and with a self-congratulatory smirk at having avoided that particular pitfall I proceeded to lift the tree into the living room. As I did so, the firmly wedged pot decided to slip off the root ball and deposit three gallons of stinking black rainwater in a spreading pool just inside the doors. I loudly called it an absolute f***ing tw*t, and nearly cried, but mercifully we have an apron of granite flooring in the bay window and using one of the many puppy toys lying around, I was able to staunch the fetid flow of devil’s diarhoea just millimetres before it reached the oatmeal carpet.
I then had to step over the heave-inducing mess, still grappling with the green monster and take it back outside. The root ball was laced with huge pearly snail eggs and I noticed that the branch tips actually had a queasy yellow hue, but by now I was on a mission. Gagging, I removed the black plastic root bag, knocked off the snails and their future babies and rammed the tree back into it’s pot. By now, rage had equipped me with super-human strength and having mopped up the crude-oil slick I staggered the last five feet across the yard once more to place the spiny alpine asshole into position, where it remained, ignored, until Rose came skipping home from school and, as agreed, decorated the shit out of it’s drooping branches.
A day later the puppy had managed to crunch his way through at least one of the antique baubles on account of his being as leggy and necky as a baby giraffe, and I enjoyed a sleepless night of anticipating his inevitable excruciating death by ground glass. He’s fine.
At rugby on Sunday I was consoled by a mum friend who regailed me with a similar tale of Christmas hope and disappointment. She had invested considerable time, money and effort into sourcing a cut tree for her living room, and had actually enjoyed (yes, enjoyed) the process of setting it up, taking great pains to place each bauble and star in harmonious balance throughout it’s symmetrical and perky branches. Pleased with herself she went to bed that night feeling accomplished and happy. She later awoke to the familiar furtive sounds of a husband trying to sneak in from the pub unnoticed, but when she heard what she thought was the windows smashing, she shot downstairs to find husband and tree prostrate on the floor side by side, one broken and mangled and the other fast asleep in a beer-induced stupor. Dustpanning shards of bauble at two in the morning she decided to cancel Christmas this year.
So, to all the Tree People recovering now after the ordeal that they most likely have endured in the name of tradition and Christmas cheer, I salute you, and raise a glass of something sweet and strong in recognition of your efforts.