In case you missed it, this essay (pdf here) was published on page 22 of the Chicago Tribune this past Sunday, December 19th. Here it is as I submitted it, almost precisely as it appeared. (If you're really bored, you can listen to me read it and extrapolate upon it at my youth group on Sunday). Merry Christmas, everyone!
Fake or real? That was the question. For the first 36 Christmases of my life, it certainly was not the question. The answer was simple. Real. We buy a real tree. I grew up with a real tree, like my parents before me. I come from a long line of Real Tree People. And I wouldn’t have even considered anything else. But this year was different. Over Thanksgiving, my sister had made the case for going fake, and I was starting to be swayed. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she told me. “It’s just too much work.” She, like me, has four kids, and Christmas is stressful enough without the added stress of having to think about finding the perfect tree, getting it home, attaching it to the tree stand, keeping it full of water, and waging the never ending and always losing battle against Christmas tree needles.
Needles are the glitter of the Christmas season. Glitter is the bane of my existence. It is Satan’s arts and crafts. You get the glitter out, and all of a sudden glitter is everywhere. And not just on surfaces, but somehow, you always end up with one on your cheek or your forehead. You try to vacuum it up, and it just stays there. You can almost hear it mocking the vacuum. “You suck,” it says. “But not hard enough.” It’s the same way with Christmas tree needles. They have this way of clinging to the carpet as though they’ve been bathed in super glue.
Then you have the very real possibility of the tree’s falling over and destroying your ornaments and spilling water everywhere. To say nothing of the ever-present fire risk posed by putting live electrical wires on a piece of dying wood that is rapidly drying out, inside of your house. When you think about it, there really is no logical reason to keep buying a real tree.
We talked it over with our kids, ages six through twelve, and surprisingly, they were in agreement that we should go fake this year. Children can cling to tradition like 90 year old Baptists so I figured this was the right decision. It was the right decision, and yet…something inside of me was disquieted. It felt like I was betraying…something.
I know this sounds overdramatic, but I felt like a young couple who considers having kids, and then says: you know, we could get a baby. But they’re such a handful. And really expensive. And super messy. So let’s just get a mannequin baby. We can put the mannequin baby in the crib, and pretend to rock it to sleep, and even dress it up! It will be so nice. We’ll still have a baby, just not all the trouble! [Note: a friend sent me this really creepy article from 2008...and I thought I was just being silly].
I know it’s not really the same thing. But that’s how it felt. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. Just like my sister, but in the other direction.
And the more I thought about it, I realized that there was actually something in this about the True Meaning of ChristmasTM. Isn’t that what Christians celebrate at Christmas? That God thought it was worth the mess, and visited the world, beginning as a baby born in a smelly feeding trough? In a small way, I felt some of that with my tree. Sure, it’s trouble and it’s a mess, but it’s worth it.
So I piled the kids in the van, and we drove down the street to where the locals set up their little tree stand, in the parking lot of the liquor store. Because nothing says Christmas like driving to Angelo’s Liquors and buying a Christmas tree.
When the liquor store guy cut the bottom of my tree, I grabbed the tree disc before he could throw it in his bucket. “Smell this,” I said to my daughter. “Smells like Christmas,” she said. Exactly.