Volume 17, Number 100, December 2014/January 2015 Father Builds A Christmas Tree by John Trott
Father loved Christmas and usually began preparations well in advance. But one year he decided to change his practice, at least where our Christmas tree was concerned. Many people decorate their tree on Christmas Eve. It's part of a religious or social custom. Sometimes it's just family tradition. One year, because of plant layoffs and father's frugality, we did it out of necessity. Father said he wasn't cheap, just cautious with money. As a child of the depression, he always sought a good bargain. Now that I look back on it, he might have had a cheap side to him.
Just because he wasn't going to buy a tree early didn't mean he wouldn't look. He began prowling the nearby tree lots the second week of December. He compared the types available: spruce, cedar and pine. He lifted them and shook their branches. Were they green and supple or were they beginning to dry out? Size and shape were also a consideration, but they could be altered if need be. But always, first and foremost, was the price. He refused to involve the rest of the family, but after his solitary inspection, we got a full report.
At supper he said, "You wouldn't believe what they want for trees this year! That chiseller by the gas station wants six dollars and even the Catholic Church is asking five!" He was warming up, "It's outrageous! The church, of all people, is taking advantage of a religious celebration!" Going back to his roots, he added, "When I was a boy we said money didn't grow on trees. Well, I guess it does now. Outrageous, it's just outrageous!"
By the time he finished his monetary tirade, we knew we were a long way from getting a tree. But he kept right on searching. Every evening after supper he made his patrol of the neighbourhood lots. As the big day approached, prices began to drop as did selection.
Now was the time for father to summon up his horse trading skills. During his earlier visits he had remained distant and aloof. He focused on the trees, and rarely spoke to the dealers. When father turned on the charm he made Cary Grant look like a rapscallion. And it was charm time. Warm and expansive, he radiated the spirit of the season. He inquired about their business, their families and their plans for the holidays. Almost as an afterthought, he would bring up the question of price. As for the vendors, they were relieved. Previously, they had regarded the solitary and skulking visitor as a probable thief. It was reassuring to see him as a potential customer - albeit, a reluctant one.
Of course father brought us up to date on the state of the Christmas tree market at supper.
"Well, the lots are thinning out and price is coming down a bit," he began. "The church is asking three dollars but they don't have many left. The hardware store has dropped to four." He began fuming again. "The chiseller at the gas station still wants five dollars." I hope he gets stuck with a bundle. I know he'll never get my business."
From that we drew two conclusions. First, he didn't like the guy at the gas station, and second, we wouldn't see a Christmas tree anytime soon. Mother figured that based on Father's track record, he was at least four days away from buying a tree. That would bring us to just one day after Christmas. To be fair, Father never did wait until Christmas morning. Of course, he might have been prevented by commercial by-laws and government vending licenses. No one would be open Christmas morning. Our tree would have to be a Christmas Eve purchase.
It was a little before 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve when Father came up the walk with our Christmas tree. Actually, he had a small shrub in one hand and a bundle of branches in the other.
Mother opened the door and exclaimed, "What on earth do you have there?"
Beaming, father answered, "Why, it's our Christmas tree. At least it will be when I'm finished."
Mother stated the obvious. "It looks like a small bush with a bunch of branches."
Father, the bargain hunter, didn't give an inch. "Wait till it's finished. I really took that chiseller. You know he wanted three dollars for all this! I said a buck and a half, take it or leave it."
Mother looked at the bush and said, "Well, if he gave you the choice, I think you missed a good opportunity. I'm going to finish in the kitchen while you fashion your tree."
Now, in those days, father saved money by cutting the family's hair. He had an old-fashioned pair of hand clippers. They may have been liberated from the navy after the war. The gears were worn, the blades uneven, and sometimes, the hand grips slipped. They pinched and pulled so much that it was impossible to sit still during the process. As a result, a hair cut was a long and painful procedure, with erratic and not always flattering results. Father said that the only difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut was a week or ten days. Tonight he had less than 12 hours to create a Christmas tree.
Clearing a spot in the corner, he assembled his tools and equipment. Then, unexpectedly, he called on me and Suzy to assist.
"Now kids, gather 'round. Hand me the pieces when I ask for them. We'll work on this together, and make sure you say it's excellent when I'm finished. Okay?"
Suzie and I knew that tomorrow was Christmas; we weren't going to do or say anything that might cost us our presents. We nodded our agreement like the automated reindeer on the house next door.
Father retrieved the step stool from the cupboard, and fastened the shrub to the centre of the stool. It was still thin and spindly but it was now taller than me. Securing the ties, he placed it in the corner to hide one of its more obvious bare spots. He took the extra branches from us, and wired them to the front and sides. It began to look a little fuller. In dim light it resembled a misshapen member of the evergreen family. In some ways, it reminded me of one of my haircuts. When he ran out of branches and wire, he stepped back to admire his handiwork.
"Bit short," he mused. "John, hand me the big star we put on the top."
I handed it to him, and he reached down to place it on the tree top. He stepped back again and muttered, "Still a bit on the short side. Pass me the big angel topper that we use for the table."
The angel was a really tall centre piece that he had picked up for a dime at a yard sale. Carefully he placed the angel on top of the star. She didn't look at all comfortable sitting on the pointed end. With a good imagination, one might think that she had been Heaven sent to grace that very spot. Now father could look the angel square in the eye. The truth was, he was a little on the short side.
"Okay kids, let's put on the decorations and remember to hide the bare spots. We have enough o-dads to make this a thing of beauty," he chimed.
Suzie and I brought over the boxes and we all got to work. Suzie very pleased with the tree because she could almost reach the top. We stopped when Father noticed that it was beginning to droop under the weight of the decorations.
Then he said, "Okay, next step. Put on all the tinsel you can find. Let's cover up as much green as we can."
When Mother supervised, Suzie and I were never allowed to put on so much decorating. We were beginning to like the meagre tree. At last we ran out of tinsel, and we stepped back to view the finished product.
"Well, what do you think?" asked father.
Remembering Father's instructions, we both pronounced excellent. Beaming, Father called Mother from the kitchen.
She stared into the corner and said, "Well, it won't take up much room, and it doesn't look like it will live too long either."
It didn't. The tree faded fast after the second day. Father was disappointed. He said that like a haircut, it might have improved if it had just hung in for a week or so.