HONESDALE, PA — As a kid growing up in Winter Wonderland itself, there was no escaping all the quaint Christmastime traditions you might find in a Norman Rockwell painting. For the most part, …
HONESDALE, PA — As a kid growing up in Winter Wonderland itself, there was no escaping all the quaint Christmastime traditions you might find in a Norman Rockwell painting. For the most part, my family’s Yuletide activities didn’t stand out much from that of other white, middle-class, Christian families in northeastern PA.
Our house on North Main Street smelled like chocolate chip and sugar cookies from mid-December through Christmas morning. And because Mom had baked enough to give all of Bethlehem a stomachache, the weeks that followed into the New Year became the only time it was acceptable for us kids to eat any number of cookies we wanted—morning, noon or night.
This wasn’t so much that Mom was still glowing with the Christmas spirit of generosity. It was more that we were all hands on deck—a race against the clock—to consume as many sprinkled, elf- and reindeer-shaped sweets as possible before they turned to sugary hardtack in their overflowing, green-and-red tins.
My sisters and I—tapping into the holiday’s religious connotations for purely self-serving purposes—spent many winter nights praying for a ceaseless overnight snow that would accumulate into the beloved, yet elusive, “snow day.”
We’d know our prayers were answered if we woke the next morning actually feeling well-rested and refreshed—not pried out from our dreams by an alarm clock or a parent’s gentle stirring hand. From that peaceful beginning, we’d fill up the remaining daylight with all the classics. Fashioning a family of snow people who stood guard in our front yard, though they were sweating and melting in the sun. Stockpiling snowballs from the safety of makeshift trenches, then peaking over the rim to launch an icy spear at our opponents. Taking a trip to St. Vincent’s school on Cliff Street, hopping in a plastic sled, and careening down the freshly powdered hill, hoping you picked up enough speed for an epic wipe out before reaching the bottom.
Sometimes we’d put a bit of a twist on an old classic. My parents took the “leave cookies and milk out for Santa” trope a step further, leaving out carrots and lettuce for the reindeer too. We’d wake up Christmas morning to find bits and pieces of those vegetables had been littered across the driveway and across the hood of the mini van. Evidence, Dad would surmise, that reindeer are sloppy eaters.
There was one aspect of a Walsh-family Christmas I remember standing out, however. Whereas the homes of just about every friend I visited in Honesdale contained an artificial evergreen tree—made of PVC and a vague piney aroma—the Walshes had a real tree every year.
Perhaps it was because my dad and I thought that the real joy of having a Christmas tree was the hunt. Bundled up in snow pants, prowling the rows of fraser firs and blue spruces, hacksaws and hatchets in hand, and felling the perfect tree all on our own. Maybe it was because we felt there was something phony about those, well, phony trees.
Most likely, it had to do with the fact that there’s a stubborn streak running through Walsh men and a belief that if something is easy, it is not worth doing.
Sadly, our dedication to genuine evergreens did not equate to a good fortune with them. In fact, for several years, we couldn’t get through a single Christmas without our tree falling down, at least once.
It happened a couple years in a row without a logical explanation. Our living floor didn’t appear particularly unlevel, and our collective sense of alignment seemed reliable in all other endeavors. By the third consecutive year, it began feeling like a curse.
With one notable exception, we never witnessed the falls either. We’d either walk in the house after some wintertime activity and—like stumbling upon a crime scene—find the tree lying slain, shattered ornaments scattered about it, and pine needles everywhere.
Other times, we’d be upstairs, snuggled in front of the TV with warm blankets and warmer mugs of hot cocoa watching a Rankin & Bass special, when from downstairs we’d hear a soul-crushing crash echo through the floorboards.
Placing the tree in the living became an increasingly anxious affair as the years wore on. In year four of the curse, it became my job to lie prone on the living room floor, watching closely as Dad lifted the tree and placed it into the stand. With the fir’s sticky, jagged branches digging into the back of my neck, I desperately called up directions to him until we had the thing as dead and square in the center of the stand as possible.
“Toward me. Not that far! Back toward you just a little bit. OK, now it’s too far to the left. My left!”
The exception I mentioned earlier? That same year, we fortified the tree at its base by lining it with little wooden slats. The efforts were unsuccessful. A week or so later, I was sitting on the living room floor, alone except for my stuffed animal and constant companion, Brown Fluffy. I can’t recall what had drawn me in there to sit and stare. But I do remember, a few minutes in, looking up to find the towering mass of green needles, fragile ornaments and candy canes was toppling down at me.
I couldn’t move fast enough to escape its path, and ended up pinned beneath a heavy weight of holiday cheer.
The rescue team descended on me quickly enough and I survived the fiasco with minor scratches. The real damage, it turned out, was to my reputation. To this day, my sisters maintain I must have done something to tip the tree over. In truth, I had done as close to nothing as somebody can manage, besides sitting down beneath a tree and getting crushed by it. However, since my only alibi remains Brown Fluffy, who is hopelessly inanimate, I fear it’s a crime I’ll be wrongfully accused of for years to come.
The safety measures put into place became more elaborate as the cursed years wore on. We considered outside of the box solutions too: saging ahead of time to rid our home whatever malevolent Christmas spirits were haunting us; blocking off the living room with yellow caution tape and simply staying out of there altogether until Christmas morning; placing the tree inside of a glass display case as though it were part of a museum exhibit.
Dad finally resorted to securing the tree in place with bungee cords that hooked into the back wall. Mom lamented being the only household in Honesdale to strap a tree upright, the way you’d affix a kayak to the roof of your car. But we did our best to make the taut bungees blend in. We wrapped them in strands of garland and festooned them with leftover tree ornaments.
The bungees were successful in stopping the tree from falling all the way to the ground, but they weren’t enough to keep the tree totally upright. A few days before Christmas, the tree was leaning at an angle ala the Tower of Pisa, and shedding ornaments like gutters losing icicles in the sunshine.
I was nearly in middle school, my eldest sister was halfway through high school, and my family had pretty much learned to live with our vengeful wobbly fates. That was the year Dad found someone selling Christmas trees and industrial-sized tree stands on the side of the road. The kind of stands they use at Rockefeller Center, the salesman claimed. This special stand ran a pretty penny, because in addition to the heavy-duty materials, it featured a foot-long, cast iron pike running up the center of the base. When you bought a tree and a stand together, the proprietor drilled a patent-pending shaped hole into the trunk of the tree. This way, the tree and its stand became one, inseparable entity that was “topple proof” guaranteed. The man said that it was worthwhile investment, since the stand would last a lifetime, and for every Christmas season to come, we could bring our trees to him, and he would drill the necessary hole into their trunks. Desperate, we took him at his word and bought the stand. That man and his special drill were never seen in Honesdale again.
To his credit though, that was the first Christmas our tree stood up tall and straight from beginning to end, without as much as a quiver or a totter. The spell was broken and the family breathed a collective sigh, of melancholy.
Somehow we knew that the era of falling trees had come to a close, and for every Christmas that came and went without incident, we would have one less family story to share. Even when it’s an unwelcome one, even when it had been thrust upon you by some mysterious force, it’s sad to see a tradition end.
Note: This year will be my first-ever Christmas living in a home of my own in Asheville, NC with my fiancee, Mollie. And if the above story has taught me anything, I know there’ll be no fake trees in our house.
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