Let the tree rules govern your yule


One of this season's great imponderables is why the telephone always rings when you're flat on the floor trying to guide a temperamental Christmas tree into its holder.

And I've never met a Christmas tree that didn't have a mind of its own.

Raised in Nova Scotia or Carroll County, sold at $10 or $75, those evergreens do as they please. They defeat strings of lights. They come crashing down at 5 in the morning. And they beckon phone calls when you are up on a ladder attending to their upper branches or spread out on the floor securing their base.

Over the years I've compiled a short list of Christmas tree mechanics and hints. Here are a few evergreen observations I live by:

Rule No. 1 -- Tie and truss a tree like you are building the Bay Bridge. Always secure a live tree to a wall with cord or wire. No matter how strong a stand you employ, trees will topple.

Many times I had to sweep through the old Hochschild Kohn, Stewart's and Hutzler's ornament departments on the 50 percent off days in search of replacement blown glass for what had been destroyed in a tree crash.

Rule No. 2 -- Employ a panel of experts to say if the tree is standing straight. Be warned, however. The members will not agree.

Rule No. 3 -- In the best Baltimore tradition, buy cheap. Mary Louise Bosse Kelly, my grandmother who lived in South Baltimore, had the right idea about Christmas tree prices.

According to her rules, you picked up a tree late and low in price. Her definition of late was Christmas Eve. Her idea of price was a dollar or two.

She also was a firm believer that the best tree salesmen were drunk on the job. She said there was a correlation between alcohol consumption and plummeting Christmas tree prices. She was right.

One cold night after an evening of sugar cookies served in the kitchen of her Poultney Street rowhouse, she took my mother and father and her grandchildren out on the street and gave a lesson in Christmas tree negotiation. She haggled with a tree salesman until we'd struck an agreeable deal.

We were so pleased with our tree, its cost and the whole experience that somehow the evergreen was not so tightly lashed to the roof of my father's 1958 Rambler as it should have been.

In those innocent days before the Inner Harbor's redevelopment, Light Street was just a busy downtown commercial street. It even had railroad tracks so that a diesel switcher could pick up and deliver freight cars to all the industries (spices for McCormick, newsprint rolls for the old News Post) around the edge of the water.

The Rambler with the tree on top was northbound on Light Street when the tires touched the railroad tracks at Key Highway.

Within a few minutes, the tree had worked its way loose and was on the street surface. Its limbs got mashed along the way.

My father stopped the car, picked up the damaged tree and retied it to the car's top. We got it home, set it up, turned the bad side to the wall and the injured tree was declared thoroughly salvageable. It also had the best smell of any tree we ever had.

The motto of this Christmas tree tale (Rule No. 4) is that for a better tree aroma, use your balsam as auto tire fodder.

Rule No. 5 -- Answer the phone if it rings when you're installing the tree. It could be a job offer.

Rule No. 6 -- Used Christmas trees work well too.

One year a friend of mine had an excellent tree standing in his living room. It was so beautifully proportioned that more than a few of his holiday visitors made the inevitable comment, "That tree is so perfect it should have never been cut down."

He responded by explaining that the tree would be on the trash heap long before Christmas Eve.

He lived in Southwest Baltimore and would be flying home to Texas to spend the holiday with his family.

On the spot, I asked for the tree when he was finished with it.

No problem.

He removed the decorations and lights and I had a slightly used tree.

No one knew the difference after it made the trip across town and was installed in my living room.

And what did people say when they saw my second-hand fir?

"That tree is so perfect it should have never been cut down."

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