On the Road: Pine Fresh Holidays…Feels Like Real Fir!

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“Look, I found a nice one on Amazon for $400!”

It was my husband, Adam, yelling down from our loft office, the perch from which he spends a lot of time and money, especially at this time of year.

He was referring to a “‘Feel Real’ Douglas Fir Tree with 750 Dual Color LED Lights and On/Off Switch, Hinged” or something very much like it.

In other words, a fake-ass Christmas tree.

“Mmm hmmm,” I said in my most non-committal voice from the couch downstairs where I was on my computer reading up on the latest Mueller report tidbits.

Welcome to the nights before Christmas, a time when most couples argue over how much to spend on already entitled children, which relatives to invite for the duration of the holiday break, or whether or not to bother sending greeting cards this year.

At our house, it’s a different struggle altogether and one based entirely on the mess that will most certainly ensue in the weeks to come.

“Why are these Catholic holidays so messy?” asked Adam after our first Christmas together and every year since as we sweep up piles of fallen pine needles, shovel out fireplace soot and take wrapping paper to the dump. Easter and Halloween are not much better (though the latter is not always on the Christian spectrum). Egg dye on the table, strands of plastic grass all over the house and jelly beans mushed underfoot mark the beginning of spring, while in fall, it’s nothing but stringy pumpkin guts on newspaper, scar making latex, and fake blood leading up to All Souls Day.

I get it. While I love nothing more than my daughter and her friends having a grand time making a big old mess as they decorate the tree, bake Christmas cookies or get creative with the eggs and the jack-o-lanterns, Adam, who was raised a bit Jewish and a lot OCD, finds it all foreign and unsettling. After all, in Judaism, just eight or nine candles stand in for the sloppy oil of the first Channukah, while the hidden matzo in the napkin is probably the crumbiest part of Passover.

Years ago, when his complaints first surfaced, I offered him the opportunity to celebrate his traditions instead. But it turns out he didn’t really have any to bring to the holiday table. His family wasn’t particularly observant and we still don’t even have a mezuzah. Given my Catholic background, I wasn’t going to be the one to invent our new Channukah tradition.

So every year, we have continued to bring live trees into the house in the month of December and every year, he has complained about the mess it leaves behind. And it’s with this history in mind that Adam’s efforts at adopting a fake tree are based.

But I, too, have a history with artificial Christmas trees, and though I know they have come a long way baby, I’m not quite ready to go there. That’s because I remember vividly the year my own parents finally gave up on real trees. It was the same year they gave up on being real parents to five children since my four older siblings had all flown the coop and were living in four different and far flung states.

There I was, in sixth grade and suddenly, for all intents and purposes, an only child. Mom and dad figured why bother with the trip to the Christmas tree lot adorned with the strings of white lights. Why bother letting me roam through the maze of awesome smelling evergreens in search of just the right one. Forget about using twine to tie the tree to the top of the Ford station wagon for the ride home.

Yeah, who needs all that, my beleaguered parents were no doubt thinking. One kid, one fake tree, insert branch A into slot B, string some lights and we’re done. When my dad brought that new tree into the house for the first time, I looked down forlornly at the leg lamp size cardboard box with “fragile” stamped on the side. I wasn’t sure whether to cheer in excitement at the idea of my parents’ embrace of new technology or cry over lost tradition. What’s next? I thought. A Texas instrument calculator for Dad and a microwave for Mom?

In the years that followed, dragging the tree out of the attic became our new tradition, though the untangling of dysfunctional strands of Christmas lights continued, unabated, as it always had. We’d work for hours on those old lights, laying them on the floor in circles through our center hall colonial. I still can’t understand how lights get so tangled simply by sitting in storage for a year. Nor can I fathom how so many bulbs can burn out from lack of use. From the kitchen, I’d yell back to the living room when I came across a dead bulb in need of replacing. That was my job.

Once decorated, the fake tree looked okay, but something was definitely missing. Sensing my distrust of the new synthetic fir, my mother attempted to inject a little realism into the scene with some pine scent in aerosol form. It wasn’t a matter of her occasionally spraying the can as she walked around the house doing the Lysol routine which, as kids, sent us diving under couch cushions like we were avoiding DDT.

No, this time it involved an ingenious little white electric dispenser that plugged into the wall behind the imposter tree. The object looked like a can opener and it could hold a full can of scented aerosol room deodorizer. Once every 15 minutes as long as the tree was standing, the dispenser would depress the nozzle of the can, sending a “shfritz” of pine scent into the general vicinity.

“Shfritz” … “shfritz” … “shfritz” … even as a 12-year-old, this odd attempt to impose technology on nature struck me as bizarre in a “what-would-aliens-from-outer-space-think-if-they-saw-this” kind of way. It was kind of embarrassing when you had to explain it to guests.

I’m sad to say that we never did go back to real trees. In the years that followed, my dad got very sick and stayed that way through most my teenage years before dying during my last week of high school. The battle for a real tree seemed irrelevant with everything else we were contending with in those days, so we made do with the fake fir, and I have to admit, it really wasn’t a bad little tree after all.

But bringing one into our house now? Two could play at that game, I thought as I went online and added the “LCD Automatic Timer Non-aerosol Scent Dispenser Perfume Spray Air Refresher” to the Amazon cart. I think I got the message across. Earlier today, Adam suggested I take our daughter, Sophie, to Long Wharf to pick out a tree.

We did just that in the late afternoon, selecting a beautiful, fresh smelling specimen that we tied to the roof of the Subaru and drove home as the last of the light was fading. The  tree now sits in the corner of our living room, watered, alive and awaiting lights and ornaments … with no “shfritz” required.

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Annette Hinkle, former associate editor of the Sag Harbor Express, writes extensively about the East End of Long Island for a number of regional publications. In 2017, her first book was published. "Sag Harbor: 100 Years of Film in the Village."