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.

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LAUREN HOFFMAN lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. By day, she pretends to know a lot about computers; by night and weekend, she is at work completing a collection of essays titled When You I Feel Because. She holds an MFA in non-fiction writing from The New School and has no cats.

30 responses to “The Tree Story”

  1. Aaron Dietz says:

    So…never lose the NBA final?

  2. Tom Hansen says:

    I wrote a poem in grad school.

    Trees Are Weird

    Trees are weird in Washington
    We know why this is

    Because they just stand there
    as people hack them to pieces

    Every once in awhile you’ll see one
    hunched on the side of the highway
    thumb out, looking back at his brethren and
    muttering thru the pine scent, “Fuckin’ weirdos”

    But most just stand there and take it.

    Trees are weird in Washington
    We know why this is

  3. Tom Hansen says:

    How can anyone get excited about Christmas when the handle breaks???? I mean, come on!!! We can’t even have a little functionality and quality at Christmas? I think my last Christmas tree was a dead branch with some tinsel and crap thrown onto it. “It’s part of a wreath.” “No, it’s a tree. It’s just small and can’t stand up.” “But it’s just a branch.” “A piece of a tree is still a tree. A tree is just a stump with lots of small tress coming out the side.”

    I won that argument

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Damn right you won that argument, Tom. Why would anyone tell someone that something wasn’t a tree AT CHRISTMASTIME?

  4. James Bernard Frost says:

    I think you might be my soulmate, Lauren.

  5. Richard Cox says:

    I suppose the holidays are like a lens that focuses feelings we experience on a daily basis, training them into a point of light that either blinds us with hope or burns us with despair.

    And even if they aren’t, writing that sentence made me feel really smart.

    But seriously, one might look at the holiday season as the happiest and most hopeful time of the year. Your loved ones are all around you, you’re celebrating Christianity or Judaism or the winter solstice or whatever. You might hate the season because you wish you were in a relationship, family nowhere nearby, and you feel alone more than ever. You might love it because you’re essentially unhappy and putting up decorations and gift giving temporarily obscures existential despair.

    I get fairly disgusted by the malls and roads all being crowded with people in a frenzied, credit-fueled, consumption frenzy. But I can’t really do anything about that besides not participate. Except buy gifts for my nieces and nephews. Damn it.

    If nothing else, the holidays for me are an excuse to have a few drinks and try to meet a cute girl in a shiny dress.

    I love that you abandoned the tree. And like you said, now, at the inevitable parties, you’re armed with a great ice-breaker.

  6. Yes, I’m with you on this. Wanting is hard. I’m always working on NOT wanting. But wanting forces its way into my heart/mind. I’m trying, trying.

    Right now I want that 1950s glitter and cardboard village that belonged to your grandmother. Why does that sound so appealing to me?

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      I’m not sure — aside from the kinship I feel with my grandmother when I see it, which is something I never really felt when she was alive (another essay for another time, probably) — why I love it so much. It’s just simple and pretty, and I keep it on a hollowed out table filled with Christmas lights, so it looks like it’s resting on snow. It’s just nice and uncomplicated and sparkly.

      If you scroll down on this page (http://www.papatedsplace.com/WWII.html) to the Christmas Village Snow House box, that’s my set, almost exactly. Six houses, two churches.

      • I checked it out. Now I want it even MORE! Oh this horrible! All I want, really, is to stop wanting!

        • Lauren Hoffman says:

          Oh, man. Now I’m part of the problem instead of part of the solution! (But I feel like it’s okay to want pretty things sometimes. There’s just a grade of cost/benefit analysis involved I haven’t yet mastered. That’s the trouble.)

  7. Reno j. Romero says:


    Good evening. That was a hysterical story. Now, I’m laughing with you NOT at you!


    Man, that was funny. I could see it now and had I seen this whole scene unfold before my eyes I would have threw myself to the ground in laughter. Then, perhaps, I would have helped you. I guess, let’s be honest, Lauren, how far I had to haul that damn thing.

    You know, most folk won’t admit they don’t like Xmas. Good for you. I find it a pain in the ass and in my advanced age I have found that every Xmas because less of one. I haven’t bought a tree in years. My gift list went from twenty people to two. Maybe three. My roommate is Xmas crazy. The tree has been up for three weeks now. It’s pretty. It’s decorated beautifully. Lights flash in red and blues, yellows and oranges. It’s fake. Smells like plastic.

    Anyhow, thanks for the Xmas tale. I hope Santa brings you a brand new BMW like the commercials I see. If not at least a good bottle of hooch. Single Barrel Jack will do.


  8. Way to walk away from that tree. It was the outcome I was hoping for. My perfect Christmas: alone, in the dark, with a bottle of Wild Turkey watching The Sweet Smell of Success on a permanent loop. Now it can be your perfect Christmas too….

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      I think this year it’s going to be my brother and I daydrinking while we watch the Celtics school the Magic. There are worse things.

  9. Joe Stewart says:

    So many questions! Perhaps you might have a guess as to what the “raw and real” thing might be? Is it really nothing, or is it just merely unattainable (and is there a difference the two?)? Why would a company make such bogus boxes?

    I’ll take the responses offline.

  10. Slade Ham says:

    More than anything, I think it’s awesome that you just left the thing on the side of the road. Too many people would have felt obligated to see it through to the end no matter how hellish it ended up being, and I admire anyone that knows when to toss in their cards. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.

    Good for you.

    Screw that tree.

    And I would toss my thoughts out here about all the feelings attached to the holidays, but after Rich’s nauseatingly beautiful way of putting it in his comment above, I won’t even try. Nicely done, Coxy. You set the bar too high.

  11. Kristen says:

    Really enjoyed this, as I have your previous pieces.

    “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.” Yup. Well put. Love that whole paragraph, and I love your concluding sentence.

    And the glitter! Recalled to mind some cherished, courtesy-of-Grandma ornamentation of my own. Then it inspired some searching, and this added to my watch list: http://cgi.ebay.com/CARDBOARD-GLITTER-ANGEL-CHRISTMAS-TREE-ORNAMENT-VINTAGE-/380296358552?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item588b6dea98#ht_4613wt_906. Dreamy.

  12. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    You have this amazing ability to marry hopelessness with humor in a way that brings me to my knees. You never fail. I loved this.

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