The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2013 Results

Christmas Tree Capers: the Twelve Phases of Christmas

Copyright © Glen Silver 2013

Humbug! I’ll give you humbug. Every year, same damn story. There are many reasons to dread the silly season, but mine I think, must be close to unique.

Despite the fact I live away from home and have done for twenty years; despite the fact I am happily married, on average five and a half days out of seven; despite the fact I am successfully co-raising three intelligent, polite and still alive children; and despite the fact I hold down a solid if somewhat staid job as a systems data analyst for a medium sized HR company; my mother has transformed the act of drawing me back to my ancestral homelands into an artform; and all so an ancient, time-honoured, and ultimately, utterly infuriating, tradition can continue.

Sometime during the final days of November and the first few of December, my mother expects me to risk life and limb to obtain her annual Christmas tree. We live (or rather they live, I lived) on a farm, where the homestead is surrounded on three sides by a double row of seventy-five year pines (Pinus Sylvestris for the botanically inquisitive). This represents an ideal source of the necessary seasonal ornamentation, easily obtainable (so my mother believes), and (let’s be blunt) — cheap. Staggeringly so. Free in fact. (Assuming one discounts the associated medical costs of splinter-removal, abrasion-treatment and optical-orb-particle-dislodgment, and that’s just in a very best case scenario.)

Phase One: Methodology
(The Ritual Family Parties)

She uses what I have begrudgingly dubbed Val’s Christmas Party Guilt Tripping Method. VCPGT Method is brutal in its effectiveness. It involves my mother holding her annual Christmas party for sundry family, friends and acquaintances at the homestead on the last weekend in November. Naturally, being sundry family, my wife, kids and I are always invited. Despite repeated attempts I have not yet been able to provide a satisfactory reason for not attending. Sadly, Louisa gets along very well with my mother; and the kids love trips to their grandparents’ farm with all the accompanying paraphernalia of dogs, chooks, cows, quad bikes, horses, go carts, hills, rocks, creeks, dams, trees, bush, an abandoned old house, an old well, an old quarry – and two old people who spoil them mercilessly.

Val’s strategy is mindnumbingly simple and observes the same structure every year. The following ritual is always invoked.

Phase Two: Strategy
(The Use of Emotional Blackmail)

At some point during the melee of eating, drinking, talking, singing (I am embarrassed to admit, communal carols are a required component that oddly many folks seem to enjoy, given the gusto with which Good King Wenceslas and Frosty the Snowman are belted out) and general festive merrymaking, I foolhardily enter hearing range. After all, I can hardly be expected to avoid her for the entire eight hours (this is not to say I have not tried!) as Val’s Christmas parties start before lunch and end some time before midnight, depending on when or if the alcohol runs out.

It begins thus. My mother initiates a conversation with as large a group of influential female family members and assorted hangers on as possible — Grandmothers, maiden Aunts, and other old malicious matriarchal types who have been lying in ambush for me to arrive are prime co-conspirators. She engages these dowager types even though it is essentially a one-way conversation directed at me alone. I am meant to overhear the exchange, by chance, as an eavesdropper might.

She kicks off proceedings with general remarks on the joys of the Yuletide season (I cannot contrive of any at present). The guidelines established, she casually, wistfully (yet not quite piteously) laments “Alas no, Great-Aunt Theodora!” (thereby providing the only time ‘alas’ is still used anywhere in the English speaking world – outside amateur Repertory productions of 19th century melodramas), “our tree’s not up yet. Glen, my son, my only son, hasn’t been home in a while. Why, did you know, today is the first time I’ve seen him in months.”

Clever lady. By throwing one stone, she effectively konks two birds.

Stone One: The Christmas Tree hasn’t been felled.

Stone Two: I haven’t visited.

Result: Bad wicked Son-Who-Clearly-Doesn’t-Love-His-Mother Glen KO’ed and lying out cold on the floor of familial duty. The gaggle of matriarchs tuttut and sigh (again, only slightly less exaggeratedly than you’d expect to see midway through Act III of The Curse of an Aching Heart when Lucius Goodenough knocks down scoundrel Windermere Hightower after revealing Hightower’s trying to evict the salt of the earth Abernathy’s from their beloved ranch).

Great-Aunt Theodora’s response is more than mere tut, however, it’s a singularly sensational gasp of horror. She’s a highly histrionic woman, well versed in hyperbole; often with a cup of Earl Grey in one claw, and an Iced Vo-Vo in the other & a bit of juicy gossip about a neighbour shared to all within earshot along with a splattering of saliva-saturated crumbs.

Clearly I recognise Val’s tactics as shameless emotional blackmail but no one makes you feel guilt like your mother.

Phase Three: Acquiescence
(The Son Repents . . . )

I choose not to become involved in her tearful tirades. I simply acquiesce, often as she is in midstream of some overt over-the-top outpouring. I walk up and say something like: “Excuse me ladies. Mum, I’ve just remembered. I haven’t got your Christmas Tree this year. I’m free next Saturday. Can I come up then?”

Phase Four: Acceptance
( . . . & Is Forgiven)

To which she will respond most agreeably, and with the same tongue with which she was formerly berating me, begin to heap lavish praise. “Oh, he’s a wonderful boy? He so loves his mother.” (More archaic speech.)

And the sympathetic old dears present will agree eagerly, as they inwardly smile and secretly delight in the gentle power play before them. Such is the beauty of theatre. It allows one to forget one’s own problems for a moment and find freedom in others.

Phase Five: Ascent
(Scaling New Heights with Various Dangerous Assorted Paraphernalia)

So, here I am, a week later, 30+ dizzying feet in the air, 100+ middle-aged kilos defying gravity (for how long?), putting my feet in nests, chicks to fly before their time and otherwise scaring all the regular inhabitants out of their little birdy brains. They must think I’m mad. Wise birds.

I’m climbing a great prickly sticky pine-tree in 45 degrees of hotter-than-hot, armed with three sorts of saws, and other cutting paraphernalia, such as snips (to clear one’s pathway heavenwards) and tomahawks (for accidently dropping on top of my mother’s unguarded and exposed cranium); while clambering around to my Val’s harsh directive voice, the adulation of Victorian Christmas fads in a 21st Century Australian bush not being affected by climate change, seems less like a little escape, and more like sheer madness; insanity at its most insane, even.

It is pertinent to remember that it is well over a score of years ago, since I could in any conceivable way, be called young.

Phase Six: Choosing
(The Selection of the Sacrificial Tree)

“No, no to the left, the left. Not your left, my left. Now up. Up. Higher. To the right. That’s it. Not that one. You deliberately being obtuse or what? There. Yes, the one you’re touching. No. Above your head. A bit higher.”

All I can say to such tirades is “Yes Mum. No Mum,” in the appropriate junctures, should there in fact be any clear air, both literal and metaphorical, in which to speak.

Curiously (for reasons known only to my mother, nature and perhaps god in Her more whimsical moments) the best branches are always at the very tip-top of the tree; or at the outer, furthermost edge of the slenderest bough. If it’s a plot to ensure my downfall; fortunately (touch wood – and this is relatively easy given my current proximity to the stuff) I have never fallen. Though my escalating girth, and diminishing agility makes this an ever more tangible possibility, if not eventuality. I try not to dwell on the titters my obituary might provoke: it was not the fall which killed Glen, but the rather sudden stop at the end of it.

However, something which often does fall is the cutting implement I need most. At the time I most need it. Always the one that’s the appropriate length, or bends the right way, or has the necessary cutting edge, or has been officially sanctioned by the Australian Federation Of Idiots In Pine Trees Association.

“Why that one, Mum? This one looks okay.”

“Do you want your mother to have the best or not?”

“Yeh-ees.” (What answer does she expect to such a blatant request for guilt?)

“What happens when Jilly Neunkirchen visits. Do you want her to see any old Christmas tree in your mother’s lounge room?”

Quite frankly, I don’t give a hoot what sort of tree Jilly Neunkirchen sees, but I never tell my mother that. “Of course not, Mum.”

“Good. Then to your left. Not far now. Now up. Up!”

Phase Seven: Revenge
(The Shaking of the Needles)

The only satisfaction I receive from the whole wretched exercise is the staging of the occasional ‘accident’. The way this works is I pretend to slip, and as I do, madly shake every branch I can creating a rainstorm of thousands of pine needles, cones, spiderwebs, spiders, bird turds and various other tree detritus which deluge my mother at the safe end of the tree. Yes, all over the woman giving orders as if she were three separate members of the Spanish Inquisition in previous incarnations. Then, voice aching with apology: “Sorry Mum. I slipped.”

Cruel, I know, but it’s the only time I have any power in the whole disagreeable business. Fear not, my mother usually betters me by sending me even higher for the ‘chosen tree’. Nevertheless, some deep, justice-obsessed (foolhardy) part of my being believes it’s worth it.

Phase Eight: Divinity
(The Contemplation of the Infinite & the Return to Earth)

Sometimes (as I am blown back&forth on the breeze) I feel so close to heaven I think I might as well go the extra seventy or eighty metres and be done with it. Let Mum hang around at the tree’s bottom like Wowser, her toy Pomeranian, waiting for scraps at the Chrissy lunch table. Although knowing my luck, I’d arrive on the steps of the shiny gate of pearls, to be told: “Sorry Glen, wasted journey, mate. Would’ve saved time if you’d fallen.”

Finally, after many hours of agony, the lucky contestant who has won the honour of being the Silver Family Christmas Tree for 2013 is selected and felled. Usually, it does not fall all the way down to the ground, but simply drops upon the branch beneath. I then have to climb down a level, and shake the branch that supports it, until it drops again — usually to the next level of branches. The pattern repeats (up to 5 or 6 times in a good year!) but eventually the tree is on the ground. When it is, my mother inspects it. If I am lucky, she likes it immediately.

The more normal response is: “Oh, it’s not as big as it looked.”

Or: “Oh, it’s a bit scraggly in places.”

Or more bluntly: “No, no, no. Not good enough.”

Phase Nine: Counter-Revenge
(The Re-selection of the Tree [Repeated as Many Times as The Chooser Desires] )

As you can imagine, “not good enough” means climbing another tree and repeating the procedure. Which I duly do, as many times as Val deems necessary, and a tree is obtained meeting her rigorous requirements — or I collapse from heat exhaustion. Oddly enough, the latter has only once preceded the former. At which point Val rushed off to collect some iced-water, and a wettened towel with which she mopped my brow, gave me a 15 minute reprieve, and deployed me skywards again.

Phase Ten: Verticalisation
(The Standing of the Tree)

Next in this painfully elaborate procedure is successfully standing the tree so it remains upright for the entire Christmas season (and for the two months after December 25 — for some reason, there is never as much haste to remove the tree, as there is to install it in the first place).

Again, if I’m lucky (you’ve probably guessed by now that I rarely am) the standing phase takes one or two hours less than the felling phase. Which means, in about a day and a half, I manage to stand the thing in a satisfactory manner. However, luck and Christmas trees do not seem (in my observations at least) compatible creatures.

The most common method involves standing the tree in a bucket and supporting it with bricks/rocks/anything-heavy-enough until it stands freely. Water is then added so the tree survives the 35° heat inside the house. My mother believes air-conditioning should be saved up, like candy, for special occasions.

However, if one uses a plastic bucket (as one oh-so-foolishly did, one year) the likelihood of the sharply-pointed base of the tree cutting through the soft, tender plastic is high. A lot of watermarked presents is the result.

Another year I tried nailing it (like on American sitcoms) to a wooden cross-stand. It seems easy enough — simply cut two pieces of wood, cross em, nail em together, them nail em to the base of the tree, stand the tree up. Voila!

Several hours and lots of lost temper later, it was done. It leaned a lot to the right, and didn’t stand upright unless it was allowed to snooze slightly against the wall, but it was done. Never done since, mind you, given it was dry needles before we even got to double digits on the advent calendar – necessitating a second tree being selected and the bucket of water method employed.

Phase Eleven: Joy
(The Dressing of the Tree)

But, at long, long last, the tree is erect, decorated, (mercifully, I’m no longer contractually obligated to dress the tree, my mother enjoys this task — and just recently, my own brood has begun to help gran) and the multitude of presents in their rightful places. My mother then takes a step back, looks at it all, sighs, before smiling a very self-satisfied smile. You’d almost think she’d done it all herself.

Phase Twelve: The Reward
(Speaks for Itself)

Now, I don’t want to spoil this bitter Yuletide musing by getting gushy and sentimental on you, but when all the decorations are up, and mother’s presents underneath, it does look rather good.

But it’s the smile on my mum’s face I treasure.

It’s the reason I go through this infuriating caper ... every year.

However, I do believe next year, I shall give myself an early present. Little Bruce will be 10 next October, which means he should be more than able to take over daddy’s mantle. Maybe then, I’ll get some well deserved, peace of the season. Hohoho!