A Christmas Story: The Search for the Perfect Tree

In honor of Christmas, or “Festivus,” as we Jews tend to call it, here’s a post from last year’s expedition to find a Christmas tree in St. Louis. Few of you have seen this before, so consider it new.
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For the first time in my short, Jewish life, I was invited to take place in the time-honored Christian tradition of cutting down the Christmas tree. According to rigorous scientific research, such as authentic-looking blogs and websites with festive backgrounds written in Comic Sans font, the custom of erecting a Christmas tree began in the time of the Romans with the festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn, and was marked by pretty much everyone having sex with everyone else in massive orgies. Whether you were a male or a female was evidently unimportant. Friends and family exchanged gifts, and traditional social norms were relaxed, but really Saturnalia was all about sex. Sex with lots of unknown people, actually.  In a seemingly incongruous ritual, revelers also decorated their homes with bits of evergreen shrubbery.

Predictably, Saturnalia took place during the yearly winter solstice, which happens to fall just before modern-day Christmas. Go figure. As centuries passed, the sex orgies were replaced with A Christmas Story, drinking was replaced with Republicans bitching about too much holiday-related political correctness, and the shrubbery turned into full-size trees decorated with candy canes, tin balls, and tangled masses of lights. Seriously? What the hell happened?

Anyway, some backstory: my friends Kristen and Andrew were roommates living in a downtown St. Louis loft, and they wanted an authentic, straight-from-the-ground tree with which to decorate their house.  They convinced myself and another co-worker, Ali, to accompany them on an ostensibly fun-filled expedition to a local farm to cut down the tree. Grand plans were made for a Saturday afternoon.

Preface to this story: I am an idiot. When I moved to St. Louis in July, I never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t be home again before winter. Come October, I thoughtfully managed to convince my mother to send me my winter coat, so I wasn’t totally unprepared for a cold blast. I dressed in my warmest cold-weather gear before heading to Andrew’s.  This gear consisted of a long-sleeved shirt, my ski jacket, jeans, and my running sneakers. Not so thoughtfully, I had forgotten to ask for gloves, a hat, or boots.

When the fateful day arrived, the weather outside truly was frightful. As in, snowing sideways. As in, twenty degrees with a minus-five wind chill and gusts of wind up to sixty miles an hour. The wind was blowing so hard, and the roads were so icy, that cars were spinning down roads like one of those arcade-style racing video games with an 8-year-old behind the wheel. Regardless, we figured this would enhance our reputations (imagined conversation: “Oh, that’s a nice tree. We cut ours down in Illinois’ sub-zero, freeze-your-nuts-off temperatures with a blunt handsaw. Where’d you get yours, Macy’s?”), and decided to hop in the car anyway. Thus began the Great Fail of a Christmas Tree Expedition.

Participants: Andrew, Kristen, Ali, myself, and Kristen’s friend from out of town, Chris.

Upon arriving at the farm, we head for the check in kiosk. The nice old lady behind the window cracks it open only wide enough to take our money and hand us a saw, and directs us to a waiting red van.

We run to the van. Did I mention it’s really, REALLY cold?

When we get in the van, the old guy behind the wheel gives us the scoop: We can basically cut down any tree we want, and then we have to drag it back and put it in the staging area – a dilapilated old barn with broken windows – with a claim ticket attached. Seems straightforward, right? As we arrive at the tree part of the farm, our driver points out an area immediately to our right rife with trees. “These are the white pines,” he said.

“Right behind those are some Scotch pines, and over yonder” – at this point, he motions to what looks like Michigan – “are some more Scotch pines and a very few Douglas firs. Most of the firs are taken, but you might get lucky.”

Now, at this point I must pause to describe my friend Andrew.  Andrew is the first friend I ever made in St. Louis, and a great friend he is. He has introduced me to countless friends, helped me find my way in this strange city, and is always up for anything social. Unfortunately for us, however, Andrew also has some strong obsessive-compulsive tendencies, though he will never openly admit it. He keeps his kitchen fastidiously clean. He applies for entry into exclusive file-sharing communities in a never-ending, maniacal quest to obtain something called “lossless audio.” He frequently steam-mops his industrially-glazed concrete floors, on top of his own requirement for guests to remove their shoes prior to stepping beyond the entryway. Before making a purchase, Andrew will exhaustively research the best deal on a product, memorize consumer reviews, and seek outside consult. And that’s just before he buys a scarf. God help the salesperson helping Andrew make an expensive purchase.

Anyway, back to our story. Of course Andrew does not want a white pine. That would be too easy. Nor does Andrew want a Scotch pine. Andrew wants one of the few remaining Douglas firs. Of course, if the firs were right there, this would be no problem. Rather, the firs were located in a forest of Scotch pines approximately three-quarters of a mile away, across six snow drifts, one major hill, a frozen river and one man-eating tiger guarding the pass to this forest [okay, I made that part up].

To the best of my knowledge, Andrew does not actually know the difference between a Scotch pine and a Douglas fir. I am not sure he could tell the difference between a 120-foot redwood and a 3rd grader’s construction paper cutout of an evergreen. But dammit, he’s going to find a Douglas fir.

Andrew sets off in the direction of this far-off forest. Forced to follow, we trudge off after him. Already my toes are going numb. I forgot to mention that my sneakers are made of mesh, obviously for superior breathability on those long, taxing quarter-mile runs. Andrew, by the way, is dressed in enough clothes to survive a land invasion of Russia. Originally from Boston, Andrew has been living in St. Louis for 3 years – enough time, apparently, to acquire a very furry babushka, mittens, hand-warmers, insulated and waterproof boots, and ski pants. And  a giant, puffy down coat.

After a fifteen-minute hike, highlighted by getting physically blown over by the wind, faceplanting in a snowdrift, and sliding on our rear ends down an iced-over hill (as well as narrowly defeating the tiger in hand-to-hand combat), we finally reach this far-off forest. Looking over my shoulder, the red barn outpost that served as our meeting point for the van looked like a Lego. Andrew and Chris, who apparently once worked on a tree farm, start looking for the perfect tree. (As an aside: I am not entirely sure that “tree farms” exist. It is entirely possible that Chris is making this up, partially to impress an impressionable Andrew and partially to impress an unimpressed Kristen. He was about to regret voicing his employment history.)

Ali, Kristen and I follow. Five minutes go by.

Andrew decides that the Douglas firs must actually be in a cluster of trees another quarter mile from where we are presently wandering. He takes off, dragging Chris with him. At this point, I am frozen solid and a little pissed off, so I begin pointing out the “perfect” trees I can see.  Which, incidentally, would be all of them. Maybe this is the not-understanding-of-pagan-tree-worshipping-rituals Jew in me. Brown needles? No problem – brush them off! Missing a side? We could just face that side toward the wall.

My selections are quickly nixed by Andrew since they are not Douglas firs.  He thinks. Because Andrew doesn’t actually know, he begins nagging Chris about every single tree: “Chris, is this one? What about this one? Or this one? Or maybe they are over there…” Not that I can tell the difference, but they all looked pretty much the same to me. Chris has a shocked expression on his face and is reduced to “yes” and “no” answers, as he has at last dimly perceived his predicament: he is trapped in a barren landscape, far from home, with a lunatic.

After fifteen minutes of wandering amongst the pines, Andrew naturally decides that the Douglas firs (again, remember he does not know what he is looking for) are up on a ridge. Let’s please remember at this point that the wind is blowing at hurricane-force velocity. Maximum exposure to this wind occurs, of course, on the top of a ridge. So of course Andrew wants to go up there. Chris follows.

I glance at Ali. As the two non-members of the Kristen-Andrew household, we have no vested interest in any of this except to a) have a good time; and b) keep all our fingers and toes. Neither of these interests are currently being met, so we let Compulsive Andrew literally head for the hills.

Ali and I spend the next five minutes plotting Andrew’s grisly death. Angry thoughts keep you warm.  The best idea we came up with was cutting down a tree, then planting Andrew in its place. We figured that would be just retribution for the appendages we were certain to lose. After a while, Andrew and Chris come back down the hill. Sans tree.

I asked, “Didn’t find anything you like?” Andrew replied, “No, Chris said those weren’t Douglas firs.”

I about damn near lost my mind. Frozen and pissed off, I asked, nicely, that he pick a tree as quickly as possible. Andrew smiled, wheeled around on his heel, and headed off toward a hitherto-unexplored portion of this mini-forest.

Fuck.

At this point, Ali and I are done. We are done with this cold, we are done with this wind, and most of all we are done standing around watching Andrew describe a tree as “no good” because it doesn’t have needles in full 360-degree coverage. I begin demanding that he pick a tree.

“Andrew, it’s really cold and I’m underdressed. Can you pick a tree?” Andrew smiles.

“Andrew. Pick a tree. Please.” Andrew smiles.

“ANDREW. I AM NOT JOKING. PICK A GODDAMN TREE RIGHT NOW.” The smile disappears, and Andrew begins trying to reason with me. You cannot reason with a person actively battling competing desires to commit homicide – I am holding the saw, by the way – and to simply run to the car and drive to someplace warm, like Paraguay. I repeated, “Pick. A. Tree. NOW.”

Ali joins in my strident objections, although she isn’t as vulgar. “Andrew, pick a tree! I want to leave! It’s been half an hour!” When Andrew turns away again, I pull Chris aside, because Chris has (unwittingly) established himself as an authority on trees in Andrew’s eyes by virtue of his past tree farm work.

“Chris,” I whisper, “if you tell Andrew a tree is a good tree, he will immediately agree with you.” He nods. Grimly.

After a good 15 minutes of Ali and I berating Andrew, Andrew finally says, “What about this one?” He points to a tree that he has walked by without a second glance approximately 98 times. My heart lifting, I quickly answered, “Yes! That’s perfect! Looks great! Give me the saw!”

Kristen, who to this point has been extremely reserved, possibly due to her comfortable, appropriate cold-weather gear, pipes up: “Wait, so are we picking this tree? Is it a Douglas fir?” I think she asked this question because she wanted a pre-cut picture of everyone in front of the soon-to-be amputated tree, but it served to incite doubt in that maze of a mind that is Andrew’s brain.

“You don’t like it? We can keep looking,” Andrew says, and walks off. Kristen’s reply of, “No I was just asking!” is whipped away by the wind.

I completely lost it. I could not feel my face. I could not feel my fingers. I could feel exquisite pain in my toes from walking essentially barefoot through this permafrost weather hell.

I dug in my heels. With all the menace I can muster, I said, “Andrew. Get back here.”

Andrew turned, with that smiling, oh-shit expression of a kid who knows he’s just gotten busted putting a tack on the teacher’s chair.

“What?”

“Get. Back. Here,” I coldly (ha!) repeated.

Andrew slinks over. “This is the tree we are getting. It is fine. It is exactly what you want. In fact, it is fucking perfect. I am giving Chris the saw, and he is going to cut down this tree.”

Andrew goes into damage control mode. Looking at Kristen, he says, “Well, I mean, if this is the tree that you want…”

Backing me up, Ali shoots Kristen a look. Specifically, the look says, “There is a right and a wrong answer here. Don’t be wrong.”

Kristen is a smart girl. “Oh, yes, Andrew, this will be fine.”

“Fine? Just fine? What about this one over here?” Andrew replies, a hint of mania creeping into his voice as he gestures toward the Iowa cornfields 350 miles away.

I handed the saw to Chris. Less than a minute later, we had our tree in hand and began the long trek back to that Lego-sized, dilapidated barn. Once we got there, we thankfully had only a minute to wait before the van arrived to drive us back to the main farmhouse. According to proper Christmas tree cutting procedure, there were a few extra things to do, including shaking off loose needles and wrapping it up. Kristen, Chris and Andrew, ecstatic about their new decoration, head for the (outdoor) tree-shaker stand. Ali and I, ecstatic about the prospect of saving our extremities, force Andrew to give us the keys and head for his car.

After about 10 minutes of holding our fingers in front of the heat vents, attempting to thaw, a triumphant threesome head toward our car with saran-wrapped Christmas tree in tow. We secure the tree to the car without incident and head for home.

I am so pissed off that I speak only six words to Andrew on the way home: “Turn right here. Now turn left.”

Two hours later, Ali and I are sitting on the couch. I have my bare feet (because obviously my socks are soaked and frozen) tucked in between the seat cushions. I have my hands tucked under the opposing armpits like Molly Shannon in “Superstar.” I still cannot feel anything, except possibly pain in my feet. But I’m not entirely sure that’s pain – it might simply be rage, spilling out into other areas of the body as my brain could not possibly hold any more by itself. You know when you’re planning on having chicken for dinner, but when you come home starving you realize you’ve forgotten to defrost it? And how you then have to run it under hot water for thirty minutes, all the while debating the value of just saying, “Fuck it” and making your dinner Wheat Thins, leftover spaghetti from 2007 and some jelly beans? And then, despite your best efforts and an extended bake time, your dinner is still frozen in the middle?

That was me, except instead of chicken, it was my toes. I wasn’t quite sure my feet were going to defrost in time to avoid a trip to the ER.

Want to know the best part? They bought a Scotch pine. And you know what? It looks great. Saturn himself would be proud. Then he would go fuck a Roman slave.

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