Real fun lies in fake trees


When it comes to the endless debate over real vs. artificial Christmas trees, my position has always been consistent.

To me, nothing says Happy Holidays like a five-foot chunk of green plastic decorated with garlands of white polyurethane, cheap tinsel and huge, garish red balls, then smothered with that white powder that's supposed to look like snow.

Now switch on the fake log in the fireplace and the electric wreath with its 28-bulb arrangement that forms the outline of Elvis' head and, well, all I can say is, if that doesn't get you in the Christmas spirit, you don't have a pulse.

Maybe the best thing about an artificial Christmas tree is that it leaves your home free of that sickeningly clean smell of pine.

Look, if I want that pine smell around the house, I'll hang a few car air fresheners, OK?

Until then, give me that vague, musty odor of flame-retardant plastic and synthetic ornamentation any day.

Of course, when you mention this to the real tree fanatics, they look at you like you just spit in their salad.

To these people, nothing beats a fresh Scotch pine or Douglas fir, especially if (here's the part I really don't get) they've spent half the day tramping through the frozen woods to find it.

Look, that business about chopping down your own tree -- yeah, I did that a couple of times.

The first time we wandered around in a foot of snow for two hours during which I lost all sensation in my toes and face.

There was no snow the following year, but after we finally found a suitable tree, my dopey brother-in-law contributed nicely to the danger level by firing up his Homelite a little too early and nearly severing three of my fingers.

Now, when the holidays approach, I get all the tree-related excitement anyone could stand by climbing to the attic, banging my head against the naked light bulb dangling there and dragging out the moldy cardboard boxes marked "Xmas tree stuff."

Unfortunately, our artificial tree gave out this year and we were forced to put up a real tree.

But instead of slogging insanely around in the wilderness, we got our tree the way God intended: by jumping in the car and driving to the "Every tree $17.99!" sign at the Safeway parking lot.

When we arrived, a small nervous-looking man in a parka and Orioles cap hurried up and introduced himself as Roy.

Roy declined to give his last name ("Look, if you're with the cops, I got a permit, OK?") But after it became clear that we weren't going to produce a badge and throw him against the hood of the car, he calmed down and allowed as how these were the finest Christmas trees he had ever sold in his 18 years in the business.

Well, that clinched it. There was no sense looking anywhere else, not when a straight shooter like Roy flat out tells you these are the best trees around.

So we excused ourselves and wandered around, leaving Roy to answer a barrage of stupid questions from customers ("Every tree $17.99 -- does that mean every single tree?")

It was at this point that my wife and I asked ourselves: How can we make the next few minutes as hellish as possible? In an instant it came to us: We would let the kids pick out the tree.

Asking the three of them to agree on anything was virtually impossible, and would guarantee just the right level of creative tension you need in a situation like this.

Sure enough, it took nearly 45 minutes of non-stop bickering before they selected a blue spruce that was not too ratty-looking. Then we lashed the tree to the top of the car and exchanged a final farewell with Roy ("You're telling me the truth, right? You're not a cop?")

Anyway, the whole experience was lots of fun, I guess. But next year we're going back to our traditional method of putting up the tree.

Sometime during the second week of December, I'll wander into a Sears, stab my finger at a nifty polyvinyl Bavarian pine in the catalog and bark to the startled clerk behind the counter: "Gimme that baby right there, chief!"

That night the whole family will gather around the colorful box and we'll all take turns reciting: "Insert pole with slotted end marked A into base marked B" and "Insert color-coded branches (red, white, etc.) into corresponding holes in trunk."

Before you know it, the tree will be up and decorated in that garish, lobby-of-Caesars-Palace look that we like so much, and pretty soon the Elvis wreath will be winking on. And then, by God, we'll know it's Christmas.

Some traditions you just don't fool with.

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