A Tale of Two Christmas Trees

Christmas – depending on your point of view, it’s either a celebration of the human spirit or a disaster of Hindenburg proportions that tests the limits of human endurance.  I like to think it’s the former and do all that I can to prevent it from turning into the latter.  There have been some might close calls over the years.  Let’s face it, for a single day it demands nothing less than a marathon effort.  Christmas may come but once a year but, according to my local supermarket at any rate, it starts in mid-August and ends abruptly on 26 December when the hot cross buns come out.  But for all the drama and the race against time, these days I like Christmas. 

When I was growing up, we alternated between real and plastic trees.  The real ones weren’t purchased so much as they were purloined, usually in the dead of night by my father.  One evening in mid-December, he’d disappear with nothing but a shovel, bucket and a torch.  And, possibly, his wits, although the end result suggests he may have left those at home.

He’d return home, hours later, with a branch that he’d optimistically refer to as a ‘tree’ and a series of possum scratches on his face.  The tinsel didn’t so much as decorate it as it did mask its hideousness.  Inevitably, this diseased, mangy piece of foliage would be home to a small number of pine needles and a very large number of insects which, once inside, would flee the ‘tree’ and take up residence in the house.  It was a surprise to no-one when we made the switch to plastic.

Plastic trees go either one of two ways – either they pretend to be real or they embrace their fakeness.  Ours landed somewhere in between; in that it thought it was real but looked hopelessly fake.  It was reminiscent of a talent show contestant who honestly believes they are a gifted and beautiful singer when, in reality, they couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Ironically, it looked real only to the extent it resembled the real one my father used to pluck from some unsuspecting neighbour’s front garden, riddled with pests and diseases too numerous to mention.  Over time, the tree became threadbare as artificial needles fell to the carpet to, eventually, be sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.  Eventually, it looked a collection of coat hangers. 

At a certain point, you grow up and find that you’re responsible for your own tree.  I had no idea where to start.  I didn’t even own a bucket or a shovel, much less a torch.  I had to buy one.  I settled on a tree that was fake but believed it was real.  That is, a fake tree with pretensions.  To obtain this super tree, I had to travel to three different ‘Myers’.  Finding it was hard.  Assembling it was no easier. 

Rather than just take the tree out of the box and stand it up in the nearest corner, there were very specific instructions about how to massage the artificial pine needles into life to give the thing a more realistic appearance.  It was as though you had to be careful not to hurt its feelings.  After several hours of coaxing, teasing and massaging the foliage, I began to harbour dark thoughts about getting a bucket and shovel.

As high maintenance as it was, it was quite a tree.  It wasn’t to last.  Some things you keep, others you lose along the way.  At some point along the journey, I lost that tree and went totally tree-less for a few years.  There’s nothing more dispiriting that a pile of tinsel in the corner with a few flashing lights.  It looked as though a disco ball had crash landed.  But things have changed and I can, once more, hang my tinsel with pride.  In fact, I have found myself (almost) right back where I started.

My partner, Katrina, would not stand for a fake tree.  She insists on the real deal.  For her, it’s a family tradition, one that her late father carried out with great pride.  What makes family her tradition so different to mine, is that they purchase their real Christmas tree from a reputable vendor, in lieu of snatching it off the street in the dead of night.  And it’s enormous.  The thing reaches out for the ceiling and takes at least two people to manage.  Getting it into position is not so much a chore as it is a quest.

Katrina’s tree is, without fail, the largest tree I’ve ever seen that wasn’t still attached to a forest.  With its arms stretched out wide, it wraps itself around the living room in some kind of pine-scented festive embrace.  Rather than a bucket of sand, this thing is so huge that it has its own special stand, complete with anchor bolts and a watering moat.  As for the decorations, I can only describe them as ‘next level’.

I’ve never known anyone who considers nine complete sets of lights to be a ‘good start’.  There aren’t many Christmas trees that can be seen from space, but I suspect this may well be one of them.  If you go to your window at night, chances are you can see it glow in the distance.  Katrina’s Christmas tree is nothing short (and ‘short’ is a term that would never be used to describe it) of a monument to Christmas itself.  Christmases past and present are wrapped up in its ornaments and the lights emit a soft nostalgic glow.  It is magical.

My father still has the same fake tree.  To be honest, it now looks more like an aerial than it does a tree.  The family these days is so large that the tree is entirely overwhelmed by the gifts.  In a way, that little tree – denuded of needles and in danger of imminent collapse, is a reminder of what was.  And the tree in the corner of Katrina’s living room, full and bursting with life, is a symbol of what can be.  I’ll be sure to enjoy them both.  Happy Christmas to you all.

A Tale of a Very Happy Unbirthday

I was never any good at it.  This is despite the fact that I had no shortage of practice.  It comes up every year without fail, and yet the very thought of it makes me squirm.  Some may relish the chance to be the centre of attention and bask in glow of adulation (or, if adulation isn’t readily available, then candles), but it’s never been for me.  I speak, of course, of my birthday.

 The whole idea of a birthday party always made me feel uncomfortable.  It started with having to choose a certain number of friends to invite.  This was challenging because I knew at an early age that the number in question was entirely random and that I would need to make brutal decisions as to who (and, more to the point, who not) to invite.  In a small town like Tyabb, snubbing someone could lead to a conflict that lasts a generation or more. 

The second great anxiety was whether those that were invited would, in fact, show up.  Granted, a bag of mixed lollies and skin-full of soft drink is a pretty powerful motivator, but there’s nothing like an invitation to socialise out of school hours to find out exactly where you stand in the pecking order.  Which led me to my next problem – did I actually have enough friends to fill the arbitrarily determined quota given to me by my parents?  I had my doubts.

Then there were the gifts.  I remember one birthday in primary school where I was given a model aeroplane.  That required assembly.  I’m sure I said something along the lines of ‘thank you’.  I’m also sure I wore an expression that suggested she had made a grave misjudgement.  As a rule, you should never give anything that requires assembly to a kid who routinely manages to super-glue himself to furniture during art class.  To this day, my hand is still attached to a tiny, primary school-size chair.  I guess I could have it surgically removed, but I’m (ahem) attached to it.

My last major birthday party I had was when I turned twelve.  I was allowed to have six friends and, struggling for numbers, I may have invited the postman.  Dave was deeply appreciative.  On that birthday, we saw a movie I’d never heard of entitled, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’.  I had no idea what a ‘terrestrial’ was and couldn’t conceive of a world where someone would want one, much less an extra.  But the two hours that followed convinced me otherwise.  As birthday parties go, there’s no way to top ‘E.T.’.  I decided to retire.

Liam turned ten in March.  He feels very differently about birthday parties.  For the last nine months, he has taken every opportunity to lobby, campaign and otherwise cajole in the hope of having a birthday party.  At the time he turned ten, we were managing other major events and we decided to defer.  Until November, as it turns out.

It was on.  Even though Liam was closer to being eleven than he was to ten, we sent out invites for people to come rock climbing with us.  He was extremely excited.  Indeed, he was so profoundly eager that I also began to look forward to it.  His enthusiasm was infectious.  And although this may be because he washes his hands too infrequently, I couldn’t wait.  To see someone so committed to a birthday was inspiring. There would be games, sing songs and craft activities.  It would be awesome.

It’s been a long time since I’ve spent the afternoon with a room full of ten-year-old boys.  I was in for a surprise.  We arrived at the venue to find a function room waiting for us.  There was even a special sign that read, ‘Happy birthday, Liam!’ on the trestle table.  The kids were rounded up and given a safety briefing before being set loose in the rock-climbing pen.  It was as if someone had unleashed the devil and left the gates of hell wide open.  Mayhem ensued.

There was shouting, there was screaming and there were limbs flying everywhere.  It was like a tornado of small people.  Things only went down hill from there.  By the time I had returned to the comparative safety of the function room, the sing that read, ‘Happy birthday, Liam!’  had been completely violated and now said, ‘Yer Phat Liam’.  I’m not even sure what that means.  But I’m sure it’s not good.  Liam’s older brother, Ryan, had been volunteering at his school, so knew most of kids by sight but not by name.  So we decided that instead of learning their names, we would simply assign them any name we liked.  One kid we christened ‘Marmaduke’, another we called ‘Chauncey’.  We even had the kids volunteering to be ‘Dennis’ for the day.

At the end of the mayhem, Liam said it was the best birthday party he’d ever had.  I’ll bet he can’t wait to turn eleven.  Lucky for him, it won’t be that long.  I learned a few things that day.  Firstly, that ten year old boys, in pack form, are complete animals.  The other is that it’s okay to be the centre of attention sometimes.  Especially on your birthday.  Or even nine months after your birthday as it turn out.  It’s a lesson that I’m sure to take to heart.