The Christmas Tree
 By Val Coleman

I didn’t start out as a Christmas tree.  You’d have to be crazy to start out as a Christmas tree.  Christmas trees are doomed . . . a neat little nursery of Christmas trees is death row.

Just when you’ve sucked up enough nourishment to branch out beautifully, you get whacked by some entrepreneur who cuts you off at the ankle and puts you in front of some sleazy supermarket where he sells you like a pork tenderloin.

I know, I know . . . you get to be gussied up a couple of weeks before Christmas and everybody says how swell you are . . . “Oh, Ms. Smith, your Christmas tree is especially beautiful this year.  Where did you get those lovely orange blinker lights?”

Did you know that some trees get to be a thousand years old?

But this story isn’t only about me . . . it’s about all the little evergreens everywhere who get killed every December.  It’s about sentiment and homicide; it’s about power saws and those two-handed strap saws that serial killers in plaid shirts use . . . the guys who wanted to make me into a garage.

I just wanted to get some pro-tree stuff in before we got serious.  

I’ll tell you one more thing.  Lean forward . . . I’m gonna whisper:

I don’t particularly like environmentalists . . . you know, “tree huggers” . . . I think they’re embarrassing.  Would you want a perfect stranger giving you a random embrace outdoors in front of all the rabbits?  Did you know that they are in favor of forest fires?  “Part of the scheme of nature . . . the ashes of one generation seeding the next,” they’ll tell you. 

If you want to know whether it hurts when you get burned to death, ask Joan of Arc.

Now . . . the biggest deal in the world in the Christmas tree business is the big tree at Rockefeller Center . . . and therein lies my tale.

From birth I was a fine-looking tree.  I was a hell of a sprout . . . poking up on the near edge of the wetlands behind a log house on Town Hill Road in Sandisfield, Massachusetts.  On my first look ‘round I saw the enormous nose of a deer who was planning to eat me.  As you can see, he didn’t.

Born on the same day, possibly the same minute was another young sprout . . . a human sprout named Alexander Pendergast.  I understand that he got named after Alexander’s department store . . . you know, the one that has those . . . zip! . . . zing! . . . splat! capsules full of money that go whizzing around the store through a plastic pipe arriving at the cashier’s office on the fourth floor where they make change and send it back . . . zip! . . . zing! . . . splat! to the customer.

That wonderful machine is the kind of thing that makes life bearable.

But sadly Alexander was born a little off-center and had a bit of a limp that kept him from playing baseball with the other kids.  Since we were exactly the same age, I kept an eye on him.

(What the hell else did I have to do? Standing there in all kinds of weather being used as a scratch post by bears and raccoons.)

Alexander and I got to be pals when we were both about six years old.  He would get loose in the afternoon and come out to the edge of the forest and play . . . sometimes cleaning up the weeds around my trunk . . . .  He, limp and all, even tried to climb me!

Now you know that you can’t climb a pine tree – we’re too sticky and pointy for a good climb and there’s no place to sit once you get up a couple of branches.  But Alexander could slither up high enough and perch in such a way that made me sort of bend over (I was about 10 feet tall at age six) and scare the hell out of me.  But Alexander always shifted his weight so that I didn’t break, and he made sure I was OK.

Like I said, Alexander was my pal.

Now if you’re telling your story to a psychiatrist, there always is a moment of truth . . . an event is remembered that turns out to be the big deal that screwed you up for the rest of your life.

Our traumatic event, Alexander’s and mine, began one afternoon in December, December 10th to be exact, when an odd looking dude (actually Alexander’s crazy uncle Vito) came out to the edge of the wetlands with a chain saw looking for a Christmas tree.  With a homicidal look in his eyes, he scanned the forest and . . . inevitably . . . stopped and looked directly at me.  From his point of view, I was sensational . . . my branches shaped a perfect isosceles triangle with an inviting single piney spike on the top begging for a star. Vito drooled and smiled, yanked the starter and swung the coughing saw towards me, its chain blade racing . . . when Alexander yelled “Stop! Don’t murder my tree!”

Alexander was sitting halfway up on a middle branch frantically waving his arms.

“Get down off of there,” growled Uncle Vito, “this is a perfect Christmas tree. Whatsa matter . . . you don’t like Christmas?”

Alexander spoke very quietly, “This is my friend,” he said.

“You some kind of nut?” said Vito, “get out of there . . . I’m gonna harvest this tree.”

“Harvest,” indeed. Remind me to discuss the way in which the English language is often used to hide the literal with the soft and pastoral . . .

Anyway . . . Alexander got down and lay down . . . all curled up like Mahatma Gandhi in front of me . . . defying crazy Uncle Vito with his sputtering, yelling power saw.

Muttering, “what the hell” Uncle Vito turned away and went looking elsewhere.

Now . . . since I got you here listening to me . . . I’m going to wax philosophical a little about these two . . . Alexander and the pine tree . . . me.

There is a lovely innocence about growing things.  Little people and little things have to look UP at the world . . . like dogs and cats do.  Everything around them is enormous . . . sized to the convenience of adults.  It’s not just that the things on earth are scary big . . . little people have a very sensible view of the world . . . most everything is all out of proportion and really important things like grasshoppers and pebbles and love and kindness often disappear as the years pass and everything gets tall.

Actually . . . in the opinion of little people and little trees . . . nothing has to die . . . everything is an endless adventure, an extended conversation.  Most of that gets wiped out . . . lost . . . when we grow up.  The very idea of a loving relationship between a person and a grasshopper or a child and a tree gets fetched away by the grown-up world.

Well . . . anyway . . . we left Uncle Vito walking around the forest with a noisy power saw.  I don’t want you to think badly of crazy Uncle Vito . . . Uncle Vito is the same guy who told Alexander that “stepping in cow poop makes you grow.”  Anybody that smart can’t be all bad.

Eventually Uncle Vito found another victim, a distant cousin of mine, a Scandinavian spruce with softer needles . . . and Alexander and I watched solemnly as the amputated young tree was dragged into the house, set in an ugly green metal contraption, punctured with eyebolts, and draped with damp popcorn strings and disgusting candy canes.  The most awful thing of all was the sticky white spray that spat out of an aerosol can coating the tree with a sackcloth of phony snow.

This little dance became a ritual . . . every December 10th.  Alexander would curl up bravely in front of me in the classic non-violent position when Uncle Vito arrived with his great screaming, blistering power saw.

Thanks to Alexander, I survived for eight more years . . . until I had grown to a full twenty feet tall, my branches long and lush . . . my shadow on a summer afternoon reached all the way to the back door of the log house.

(My friend Alexander was going to make a wonderful politician someday.)

Even Uncle Vito (and this, if you like, is a Christmas miracle) grew fond of our little December drama and began to lug out his saw with a certain sassy bravado . . . he was on stage acting out our little play each Christmas.  The absolute truth is that after Alexander, on cue, had curled up in front of me . . . Uncle Vito turned away and shut off the growling machine.  He took a bow!

The day had come when I was much too big for your standard living room Christmas tree.  It looked like I was going to live out my natural life.

But then came the sad Christmas . . . Alexander and I were both ten years old and I looked forward to some sort of celebration . . . I suppose it was a bit much to ask for a cake, I am, after all, a tree . . . but some kind of gift . . . a couple of robins or a nice owl would have been appreciated.

The afternoon of December 10th came and went and Alexander wasn’t there.  Crazy Uncle Vito walked across the yard by himself. He didn’t have his chain saw!  He was mumbling.

Alexander was sick . . . deathly sick . . . the town ambulance came and went.  It was all a great mystery to me . . . standing there, unable to do anything.  That day went by and the next and the next . . . and the year went by and Uncle Vito came out each December 10th.  He would wander sadly around and look up at me . . . and then down at the place where Alexander usually curled up and . . . believe it or not . . . Uncle Vito began to cry.

And then there were more years . . . Alexander’s family moved out of the log house and Uncle Vito now lived there alone . . . he and I eventually became friends . . . we shared our memories of Alexander and I could see him in the afternoon looking longingly out the paned living room window towards the wetland forest, towards me.

Remember how I told you about the marvels of being small and knowing grasshoppers and pebbles personally . . . well . . . it turns out I had to grow up as well . . . I mean really grow UP.  Pine trees are supposed to grow about a foot each year . . . but I guess I was in a hurry . . . in thirty years I was forty feet tall and could look out across the wetland forest and see all the way to the old arts center down on Hammertown Road.

On my fortieth birthday I turned sixty feet tall and I was the biggest tree in town.  You might say I was the Commander in Chief of the Forest . . . elbowing the wind, welcoming the snow and laughing as the maple tree beside me lost its leaves in the fall and stood naked in the winter.

My peaceful world was busted on that fortieth birthday afternoon by the sound of a helicopter.

It was a big, ugly helicopter that looked like a cockroach and almost nipped off my top branch as it headed in for a landing.

Strange looking, gloomy men poured out of the cockpit, all wearing black business suits and black fedora hats.  They were carrying huge metal calipers and tape measures . . . long ladders and clipboards. It was like a mobster summit meeting as they gathered around me, measuring, whispering . . .

They all had armbands with the mysterious letters RCTSS in white capitals.

They leaned their ladder up against my soft branches and it fell toward the trunk . . . then they measured everything in sight and even took a handful of needles and poured them into a Mason jar half-filled with some sort of pinkish liquid . . . shook the jar and watched the colors change.

There was much muttering . . . and after a long while the leader, a fat fellow with the biggest hat and terrible breath . . . bobbed his head and hat up and down slowly indicating “yes.”

“This is the one” he said.  And they all nodded their hats in unison.

Uncle Vito, now 80 years old, but spry as a spring chicken, had opened the living room window and was warily watching this strange Kabuki.

The fedoras sprang into action and opened a coffin-sized box that had been unloaded from the helicopter.  In the box was the biggest chain saw you’ve ever seen . . . a Jules Verne monster of a machine with sharp little teeth encircling a blade the size of a surfboard.  They started it with a terrible roar.

But all of a sudden crazy Uncle Vito flew out of the back door in his pajamas and ran across the yard and under the branches and curled up at the foot of my trunk in the non-violent position.  He raised his hand and with a quote that echoed down the years, he shouted,

“Stop!  Don’t murder my tree!”

Shocked, the fedoras lowered the saw and stopped where they stood, staring at Uncle Vito who was curled up at my feet like Alexander.  Big Hat, the chief, tried to negotiate but Uncle Vito wasn’t moving.

The stand-off lasted four days.

A regular carnival started when a couple of furious neighbors came by to find out what all the fuss was about.  By the second day, a huge crowd of folks had collected around me.

They were all on my side.

Rupert Puckerfist, the town drunk, took Uncle Vito’s place every ten hours and the whole scene became a celebration and a protest, with Jesse from the Silverbrook Bar selling hot dogs, Lucy Paragraph playing Mozart on the living room piano with the window open, and Ben Luxon reciting the storm scene from King Lear . . .

Blow winds!” he called.  “Crack your cheeks!”

Intense negotiations began and the Big Hat revealed that RCTSS stood for Rockefeller Center Tree Spotting Syndicate, and I was to be the 77th Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.

Off at the ankles!  Dead tree walking.  Thanks a lot.

There are those who would argue that getting to be the big tree at Rockefeller Center is a big deal, an honor . . . but nobody mentions that you die . . .

. . . I’ll pass, thank you.

On the third day, television showed up.  Two large white trucks with great antenna coils climbed Town Hill Road to the log house.

In an hour, the story of Uncle Vito and the Christmas tree rocketed around the nation . . .

It was all very exciting . . . I particularly loved the bright blue lights of the television interviews and seeing myself on the monitors . . . Uncle Vito had to protect me from souvenir hunters who were slicing off pieces of bark.

Big Hat was a tough negotiator, and he really wanted to start that big old power saw again and cut me down.  But his cell phone rang, and the Mayor of New York City was calling.  Big Hat stood at attention during the conversation.

“Yes Sir!”  “Yes, Sir, Mr. Mayor!”  “Right away, Mr. Mayor!”

Big Hat hung up and whispered in Uncle Vito’s ear.  Uncle Vito stood up and stretched . . . he walked across the lawn and into the log house.

The black suits went to Harlan Foster’s hardware story in Great Barrington and bought a dozen shovels and several yards of burlap.  They dug me out . . . keeping me alive by putting most of my roots into an enormous burlap-covered ball of dirt.  A giant grasshopper of a crane let me down onto a half block-long flatbed truck.  They poured water over the burlap bag to keep me fresh.

On the trip to New York City we were escorted by a dozen police cars all Christmas lit and with whiney sirens.  Hundreds of people lined the road and cheered as I passed by.  Outside Danbury, a group of naked environmentalists joined us.

Leading a great snake of a parade, we honked and blundered our way down to Rockefeller Center.

It was a wonderful day . . . and remarkably it was December 10th, the 38th anniversary of the day Alexander had saved my life.

Let me set the scene . . . It was cold.  There was a throng of thousands around the famous skating rink where skinny people zipped back and forth.  I was placed just above a statue of Prometheus.  Uncle Vito supervised the stringing of 20,000 lights with a 200-pound star up on top, sitting on that single piney spike of mine.  Uncle Vito saw to it that there were no popcorn strings, no candy canes.

But there was a long fat wire connected from me to an enormous knife switch which the Mayor of the City of New York would close . . . and light me up!!

The crowd hushed . . . and the ceremony began with a burst of Christmas carols from the red-muffed band . . . and, finally, the Mayor’s limousine pulled up and he strode to his appointed place.

There was something faintly familiar about his walk . . . he was limping.

The crowd held its breath . . . he grasped the handle of the switch and plunged it down . . . the lights blazed on so I could see his face clearly.  It had a mischievous smile.

The Mayor was Alexander!  My friend Alexander Pendergast!  And he was running the world!

After New Year’s Day they took me down, put me in the same old long truck and hauled me back to Sandisfield.  (There were no crowds lining the highway this time.)  But Uncle Vito, Mayor Alexander Pendergast, and all the black suits had brought their shovels. 

They stuffed me back in that big hole on the edge of the forest where I stand today . . . very much alive . . . proud and unadorned.

Christmas, 2018