Wednesday, December 24, 2014
The Special Tree
Conventional Christmas tree
On Sunday we went out to get the tree. It was our first priority following the girls’ arrival from New York. They arrived, as they have on several earlier occasions, in a large, beautiful shiny black SUV driven by Mr. Singh, the proprietor of a Manhattan car service. This is no big deal for my granddaughters, in fact no deal at all, and I have learned to take it in stride myself. But the shiny metallic blackness still triggers in my mind a phrase from my high school history text book: “the rise of the Middle Class,” a phrase vaguely suggestive of hot air balloons or perhaps bread dough, though harder to visualize in concrete terms. As some wit pointed out, the Middle Class has been rising for so long in history texts that it should now be visible only with the help of powerful optical instruments.
To set out to buy a Christmas tree four days before Christmas might seem to be cutting things a little fine even for those who live by the procrastinator’s creed: Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow. But on this question everything depends upon whether you view Christmas from the perspective of the red or from that of the black. I allude of course to the chromatic shorthand of the title of a famous novel by Stendahl in which those colors suggest the tensions between secular and ecclesiastical values still very much alive in post-Revolutionary France and not quite finally settled even today.
Not quite, but almost. According to the American commercial calendar, which is redder than the star on Trotsky’s cap, the Christmas season begins no later than the Friday following Thanksgiving, which is somewhat confusingly called “black Friday.” Black Friday, which this year fell on November 28, is the official beginning of the shopping orgy. On the basis of black Friday sales grim number-crunchers are able to predict, before a week is out, whether or not American commerce will exit the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace in the red or in the black.
According to the old really black calendar, however, Christmas began on, well, Christmas, December 25, and extended through the twelve-day period until the Feast of the Epiphany, which is its thematic and theological complement. Vestiges of the medieval importance of Epiphany as the culmination of Christmas are still prominent in various parts of the world, including multicultural America, in celebrations of the “Day of the Kings”—i.e., the kings of Orrey and Tarr.
If you think that Christmas ends rather than begins on December 25 you are going to miss out on everything except the partridge in a pear tree. All the really good stuff—golden rings, geese alaying, lords aleaping, etc., comes later. But historical sensibility, supplemented by a raised liturgical consciousness and about three dollars and a quarter, might get you a small latte at a central Jersey Starbucks. My tardiness in the tree search, though ideologically justified, was practically motivated. After all the essence of the tree search is the active participation of the grandchildren.
The girls arrived only about three o’clock, and they needed at least a brief period of decompression and refreshment before being packed into another vehicle to be carted back to the arterial highways of central New Jersey. Sunday was, as it happens, the day of the winter solstice, alias “the shortest day of the year”. That meant that the shades of night were threatening to fall even as we got on our way. To give the girls due credit, however accustomed they have become to black late-model SUVs, their spirits rise noticeably when they are riding around in a faded red Ford pickup somewhat older than their own combined years. Most of the actual Christmas tree lots and “cut your own” farms having packed up by then, we made a beeline to the belly of the nearest big box beast—in this instance the Lowe’s on Route One in West Windsor.
Co-conspirators with the Delivery System
It was not a good omen that the sliding mesh doors of its horticultural division were closed, though our hearts leapt up when we got within reading distance of the affixed sign, which promised that ingress was possible via the main entrance to the huge store. We hurried through aisles bustling with prospective buyers of snow blowers and toilet floats to the Garden Shop. It was not quite empty. There was a young couple—of Rumanian Orthodox confession I conjectured on the basis of my awesome deductive skills—and a middle aged woman with a small, electric-powered chainsaw. She was cutting three untidy inches off the withered trunk of the tree the Rumanians had just purchased.
That left six trees for us, now the sole customers in that barn-like place, to choose from. All of them were special trees in the recently acquired sense of that adjective as exemplified, for example, in the phrase Special Olympics. And we bagged the most special one of all. The bagging was literal. The Chainsaw Lady had a cunning apparatus that wrapped the tree in a giant hairnet of strong but nearly invisible webs, thus accommodating suburbanites with shiny black SUVs who, unlike us, have to strap their booty to their shiny black roofs. Among the other advantages of buying special trees four days before Christmas is an apparent discount of about ninety-five percent. In practical terms that means that you get change for a ten dollar bill. Our gorgeous tree is now in place awaiting the first day of Christmas and young and vigorous enough to flourish for the following eleven without needling us.
Special Christmas tree