The three wise men had it right. On the way to Bethlehem, they carried gold, frankincense and myrrh. They did not schlep a Christmas tree.
Who is to blame and how did it begin - this crazy custom of chopping down a tree and hauling it into the house? According to the Christmas Archive website, the origin of the Christmas tree dates back to the 7th century when an enterprising monk appropriated it as a teaching aid. He felt the triangular shape of the fir tree was the perfect prop to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity. (This technique still works well in a house with small children or cats).
On this side of the ocean, an epidemic of the big bad bah-humbugs was sweeping the country. Christmas was considered a serious holiday. Other than church, a law passed in 1659 made any observance of December 25 a penal offense. No presents! No parties! No fun! The party-pooper Puritans were undermined by the arrival of German and Irish immigrants. In 1846, the first case of Christmas envy was recorded after the Illustrated London News featured Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children standing around a decorated Christmas tree. Suddenly, everyone wanted the same royally perfect family tableau. It's easy to look happy once the tree is inside and decorated. It's selecting the tree and grappling with the darn thing that's the problem. "It's the first fight of the holiday season," a friend lamented. "He's happy with the first tree we see, but I have to keep looking." Of course, not just any tree will do, it has to be the right tree. A perfect tree. A fluffy, green triangle with no gaping holes. The trunk must be ramrod straight. The top must have a spire worthy of an angel.
Finding such a tree is easy. At a tree lot, I immediately get in the spirit of things because the temperature is identical to the North Pole's. I shiver, stamp my feet, shake snow from frozen trees, twirl them, and just before my child chucks a large snowball in my direction, I pay a large sum of money to someone inside the warming hut and tie it to the top of my car. Fun!
Once, seeking a more authentic experience, I joined friends to cut one down myself. Although you may envision this as one of those memory-making experiences - fresh air, blue skis, caroling - all I really remember is shouting, "Look out below!" as the runaway tree shot down a steep hill like a snowy torpedo with me floundering behind it on skinny cross-country skis.
Whether you buy one or cut it down yourself, only half the battle is over.
You still have to wrestle the beast into the house and get it in the stand. Once inside, you will discover one or more of the following problems: the tree lists, the needles are prickly, the needles fall off, there is a hole somewhere, you cut off too much from the top or the bottom, you didn't measure the height of the ceiling correctly and the tree is either too big or too small.
Of course, I am not drawing from personal experience when I write that most of these problems can be corrected with clear fishing line, duct tape and drilling tiny holes into the trunk to add branches.
Last year, I gave up. I now have an artificial tree. It is perfectly shaped. The lights work, the branches are full, and the angel looks beautiful on top. I can admire it in all its fakey splendor and think, "How lovely are thy branches."
I am one wise woman.
- Joanne Palmer's column appears Sundays.
E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org