My father’s Christmas cheer
My father was always the last guy to buy a Christmas tree. He explained that the prices were cheapest the day before Christmas. He didn’t dwell on how bad the selection was.
So we’d be driving along the country roads a day or two before Christmas, looking for a tree stand that was still open and then haggling for the best price for the worst tree. I’d get into the spirit of it, looking for trees that might have been thrown aside because they were tangled or deformed. Getting that tree home was the goal, regardless of how pathetic it looked.
The late-tree buying was a way to forestall the chaos of Christmas, I think. Our trees were always an epic disaster in the making. We’d decorate them in a violent flurry, drench them in tinsel, swear at the broken lights, paw at the cheap decorations, and then sit in a tree-decorating stupor on the green couch waiting with bated breath to see if the tree would be able to stand under its own weight.
My father had perfected a network of guy wires suspended from the ceiling, the bannister and the wall to hold the tree steady. Even then, he couldn’t account for the destructive force of the dogs chasing each other around the house, or the toddlers grabbing hold of low branches and tugging as hard as they could, or the well-intentioned dismantling by my retarded sister, who didn’t have the dexterity to hang ornaments, but had the determination to take them down.
This wasn’t perfection and it wasn’t loving chaos. This was the collision of Norman Rockwell with David Lynch. I think that it drove my dad mad.
That madness made its appearance in the form of sudden and irrational determination. Like the Christmas Eve that my father announced that he was going up to the attic to kill the squirrels. Right that moment. The first step was to arm and protect himself. We sat on the couch with my mother watching a Bozo the Clown Christmas special while my father banged around in the basement. We heard his heavy footsteps on the basement steps. He stepped into the living room fully armed.
He’d fashioned a spear from a broomstick with a kitchen knife taped to the end. He had a battered metal garbage can top as a shield. He wore a grey canvas coat and thick canvas pants for body armor. He had on two pairs of gloves, a ski mask and had covered the top of his head with a Clorox bottle.
I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, because the squirrels outside the house weren’t that fierce or large, but I trusted that the squirrels that settled in the attic must have mutated into mythic beasts. So we sat there watching Bozo the clown and listened to my father bang around in the unfinished attic, foot plunging through the ceiling tiles, grunts and battle cries cascading down the stairs. He descended a while later, lathered in sweat, covered in attic dust and fiberglass from the insulation. I looked for blood, a carcass, something. He’d failed.
Every Christmas had its distinctive moment. There was the Christmas that my sister and I opened every present since we couldn’t read any of the tags. There was the Christmas that the tree fell down one too many times and my father refused to put it back up. It lay in the middle of the living room like a beached whale. My sisters and I found a little tree out in the swamp, cut it down, stood it on the kitchen counter and put some ornaments on it. We weren’t going without a tree.
As the years passed, making Christmas merry became an act of defiance. There was no way that we were going to let the holiday pass without having enough gifts, without having a tree to put those gifts under and without mustering up enough cheer to celebrate the birth of Christ and the joy of family.
Today I’ve got three trees scattered around the house. They’re beautiful and they were put up without much angst and with a lot of enthusiasm. I might be compensating, but I don’t really care.