Christmas stories have pretty morals – things like “Giving is important” or “Family comes first” or “Maybe snoop through your husband’s closet a little to find out what he got you before you up and cut off all your hair” or “If you don’t want the inside of your hotel to be covered in placenta and overrun with shepherds, go ahead and tell that nice pregnant lady that you’re all booked up.” This is a story about Christmas, but its moral is much murkier.
I dislike Christmas for dozens of tiny reasons, like an allergy to pine that spirals quickly into bronchitis if I spend too much time in a room with a Christmas tree. And I hate it for bigger reasons too, like the deep and abiding knowledge that we are all, in some way, intractably alone and no amount of yuletide cheer can distract us from that forever. I make a mix every year titled “Have Yourself a Maudlin Little Christmas.” I white-knuckle wineglasses as I try not to cry at Christmas parties. I claim that yes, absolutely, “Famous Blue Raincoat” DOES count as a Christmas carol.
The smart thing to do would be to hunker down and wait for January. Instead, I’m convinced that if I try hard enough and do everything right, Christmas will be bearable. Magical, even. In the spirit of this misguided theory, I decided that this year, I needed a Christmas tree.
I live alone and don’t drive, which means that every errand I can’t complete myself requires asking for a favor. The store with the widest selection of artificial trees was a half a mile from my apartment, but the weather was good, and I’m reasonably able-bodied, and I figured I could manage it. I lifted the tree that I wanted — a six-and-a-half foot pre-lit imitation Douglas fir — and walked around the store with it in its box to make sure I was comfortable carrying it. It was heavy and a little awkward to balance, but doable. No need, I told myself, to get a smaller tree. Get the one you really want. It’ll be perfect! Christmas miracle!
I was half a block away from the store when the handle ripped out. I know now that this was the point where it would have been a really good idea to quit: turn around, take it back to the store, go home, have a drink, call it a day. But there was a handle-like space left behind in the ripped cardboard, just the right size for my hand, and I lifted the box with it, and it held, so I kept walking. Two hundred feet later, it ripped too.
All of this was unfolding on a city street, and I’m not saying that people were stopping to stare, but they certainly could have. I picked up the box in both arms, out in front of me, and started to carry the tree that way. It’d been heavy in the warm store, with a handle, but on the street, in the cold, in my arms like a corpse, it was unbearable. I turned onto a side street and walked another block, and then I stopped.
I looked to my left. I looked to my right. No one was coming. I set the tree down in front of me, carefully stepped over it, looked down, and then turned and walked away. Perhaps my favorite part of the story is this: as I walked away from the tree by the side of the road, I said — out loud — “NO REGRETS,” as though I’d just lost the NBA final, but left my all on the court.
Once I was home, I resolved never to tell anyone what had happened, and then spent the next day and a half telling everyone I knew, on the theory that the more you tell an awful story, the funnier it becomes.
“There was a handle, though. IT HAD A HANDLE. Why would you put a handle on a box if it’s just going to rip out after half a block?”
“Well. Probably because the handle was designed to carry the tree from a store to your car, and not for many, many miles.” Fair point.
There’s a different tree in my living room now – it’s a sad plastic heap of a thing, but when it’s plugged in and covered with ornaments my mother and I spent hours making, it’s nice. I set it up next to the cardboard and glitter Christmas village that was my grandmother’s in the 1950s. The same streak of sadness that’s helixed into my DNA ran through hers, and I wonder if it was the little houses were the thing she set up to latch onto at the holidays, the little something perfect and pretty that pulled her through into the new year.
I think when you get right down to it, my problem with Christmas is the feeling of wanting something – not a Kindle or KitchenAid stand mixer, but something real and raw – and having no idea what that something is, and then being deeply disappointed when I don’t get it.
The moral of the story of the tree left by the road is this, I think: it costs us dearly to want things, and it always will, even when those things are nothing in particular.