Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Oh Tannenbaum!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.
They’re green when summer days are bright;—
They’re green when winter snow is white.
O, Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!

I don’t remember the exact year that we went “artificial” with our Christmas tree instead of purchasing a fresh one, but it was the year after mom had it out once and for all with one hapless Douglas fir that refused to stand up straight.

Mom never had much luck when it came to choosing the best tree. I mean, they always looked good in the parking lot of Moore’s A&W where we had picked up ours, usually the first week of December (back when people started thinking about Christmas after Thanksgiving and not sometime in the middle of October). However, more often than not, once we got that “good-looking” tree back home, it wasn’t as good as we had thought when we picked it out.

There were some underlying factors that explained this. Maybe it was choosing it at night when it was too cold to spend a little extra more time scrutinizing the Douglas firs on sale. Maybe it was the poor lighting; you know the strands of 60-watt bulbs illuminating the lot created a lot of shadows that could make any scrawny, crooked tree look good. Then of course there was the timing—get to Moore’s too late and all the good ones had already been picked through.

There were one or two good Christmas tree years when the one we had bought at Moore’s cooperated when Mom placed it in the red and green metal stand and screwed in the three butterfly-like screws to hold it up.

And even if there were some bare spots in the tree, we could always turn it around so they would face the back or fill them in with some extra ornaments. Problem was you sometimes didn’t know what the tree was going to be like when you did get it home. Once it “warmed up” inside the house, those bare spots suddenly appeared.

Then there were the needles. Unless you cut down your own there was no way of knowing just “how fresh” your tree really was until after you got it home. It smelled fresh at Moore’s—you know that wonderful and delightful Christmas tree smell that is one of the top ten great smells in the world, just after a new car smell—but just how fresh it would be in your living room was another story.

Needles that might have seemed fresh when first inspected now suddenly appeared dry. It was not like you could go back to Moore’s and exchange the tree for a fresher one; nor could you get your money back (at least I never knew anyone of trying) for having been sold a potential fire hazard. Caveat emptor as far as I know does not include Christmas trees.

“We just won’t be able to leave the lights on too much,” Mom would say when it was determined that the tree posed a potential fire risk.

At night, we could hear the needles dropping—which gave new meaning to the expression so quiet you could hear a needle, in this case, needles dropping. Of course, you could keep your tree “fresh” if it hadn’t already been dried out by filling up the stand with water and adding some concoction for keeping it fresh through the holidays, at least until the day after Christmas when most trees were thrown out. Mom always swore that plain tap water and a few Bayer aspirin worked best to keep one fresh.

That was a lot to keep in mind when it came to having a “real” Christmas tree and if one were lucky, that Douglas fir purchased from Moore’s would be fresh, would stand up straight, and have minimal bare patches.

That was not the case the Christmas mom threw the tree out the door.

I know it was tough for mom being a single parent and when the holidays rolled around it got tougher for her because she always went all out to make sure my brother and I had a good Christmas.

Nothing it seemed was going mom’s way two weeks before Christmas that year with the tree she had bought at Moore’s. A friend from work had taken up to Moore’s one night after work and she picked, what she thought was a decent one, but when she brought it home and started to put it up, it just wasn’t going to cooperate.

It all started when she couldn’t get the tree to stand up straight. No matter how many times she positioned it in the middle of the stand and tightened the screws, it kept on leaning to one side. Finally, when it cooperated and stood straight up that was when she noticed the bare spot. She tried to turn the tree around, but it started to lean again. She tightened the screws in the stand again and turned the tree around one more. Now she had a real Leaning Tower of Pisa on her hands and no matter how many times, she tried to get that Douglas fir to stand it up straight, it refused to cooperate. That must have been the breaking point.

“Open the door,” Mom said as she grabbed the tree and started toward the door. This was followed by a few expletives—the ones if we ever used would result in our mouths being washed out with Lava Soap.

“What?” I asked, looking up from the box of ornaments I had been going through.

“I said, open the door.”

“Mom, you’re not serious are you?”

Suddenly, I had this terrible image of a tree-less Christmas. My younger brother, waiting in the wings to start hanging tinsel knew that something was up when he heard the tone of our mom’s voice.

“Out of my way,” Mom said.

And that’s when mom threw the tree out the door.

Well, not exactly threw out. The tree still had some fight left in it and refused to go through the door. Had my mother given it one more chance to stand upright and spread its branches she might have kept it. Instead, the tree was halfway out the door now. Two hard pushes later the tree was out the door and its wake a trail of needles and broken branches.

My brother and I were too stunned to say anything. Then my brother started crying when he realized that Santa might not come because we wouldn’t have a tree.

“What are we going to do,” my brother sobbed. “S-S-S-S-Santa won’t come now because we don’t have a tree.”

“Shh,” I said. “Don’t worry. Santa will still come.”

After mom had cleaned up the needles and the broken branches she started to fix dinner. Not another word was spoken about the tree that was still on the front porch. She hadn’t put away the decorations so that was still a good sign that all was well and that Christmas for the Miller family had not been canceled.

The next day was Sunday and the tree was still on the porch but on Monday when my brother and I woke up it was gone.

“Oh, no we’re doomed,” I said doing by best Dr. Smith (Lost in Space) impersonation.

“What are we going to do?” my brother asked.

There was only thing we could do now: call our grandparents. They would know what to do.

“Don’t worry,” I assured my brother, “everything’s going to be okay.”

As soon as our mom had gone to work that morning, and before we trudged to school, I was on the phone with my grandmother. I told her what had happened. Of course she told me how terrible it was and that I shouldn’t worry.

When my brother and I came home from school that afternoon we were surprised to see another tree on the porch.

“See, I told you that everything would be all right,” I said.

My brother grinned. In my brother’s eyes I had worked some Christmas miracle, but more importantly, he knew that Santa would be coming.

Mom had already gotten home from work and had started dinner when my brother and I walked in. She didn’t say anything about the tree.

“Wash up boys,” she said. “Dinner will be ready soon.”

I knew if mom found out that I had called my grandmother she would be angry so I decided not to say anything about it at all. Play dumb, that’s what I would do.

Dinner that evening was meat sauce over mashed potatoes—kind of like Shepherd’s Pie. It was served to us in the school cafeteria and I liked it so much that I had persuaded my mom to cook it for us at home. I was probably the only kid in Illinois who liked cafeteria food so much that he could persuade his mother to cook the same dish.

“That’s a nice tree on the porch,” Our mother finally said as we began to dig into that mound of spuds topped with thick spaghetti meat sauce. “That was very kind of your grandmother to get us a tree this year.”

“Huh?” I asked, as I broke one of my mother’s cardinal rules—talking with my mouth full of food. Was there something I didn’t know? Was there something I missed?

“She wasn’t sure if we already had a tree and wanted to buy one if we didn’t,” our mother explained. And then she looked at me from across the table and smiled. “Don’t worry if some things don’t always go the way you want them to at first.”

I never did figure out if my grandmother had called my mother or if it was the other way around. Nothing more was said about the tree that was soon put up and decorated with all its lights shining brightly. This time it stood straight up and I was also probably walking a little taller, too.


  1. Jeffrey,
    Where I grew up we have plenty of christmas trees. Yearly our family would go out to the farm, select and cut our own tree. Mom would have to dig deep in her pocket. It was a very specical event for us, especially for my youngest brother. The most enjoy part for me is the decrorations. The hand made ornaments we been collected for years are carefully place and my dad always checked the christmas lights made sure none of them light are out. My other two sisters would fight over who would put up the angel or the star on top of the tree.
    My first christmas alone while I was in college, I had got a charlie brown christmas tree decrorated with ornaments what was on sale in ten store. I think that was one of my best christmas tree ever. Now a day, I just decrorate a small christmas tree still with roots entact, once the holiday is over I plant the tree out in the woods. All the nine trees I planted over the years are thriving and are just beautiful.

  2. Some story you got, I feel the same way with the fresh tree, but mine was not as bad, it looked nice when I first got it, but as the day approaching Christmas, the tree looked drier and depressed, and by Christmas day, I can’t wait to throw it out, with the artificial tree, I leave it until New Year’s day.

  3. Thanks Nye and Salalao for chiming in with your thoughts on Christmas trees!

    The best advice for those wanting a fresh tree is to go to a Christmas Tree farm and cut down your own; then you know it’s fresh.

    Back in the 1960s, when more people started to buy artificial trees someone came up with the ingenious idea of make an aerosol spray that smelled like a pine tree.

    There have been some rather strange and weird artificial trees too–like the aluminum ones in the 60s with blue ornaments and a rotating color wheel that threw red, yellow, blue, and green colors on the tree.

    I have been surprised to see how Christmas Trees have caught on in Asia. In 1990, the year I came to Korea, there were very few Koreans putting up Christmas trees. Now they are everywhere.

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