The New F Words: Fun, Family, Festive.

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Cutting down our Christmas tree became a family tradition after I divorced my husband. On my own with two little ones, I was desperately searching for a new holiday “normal.” Though I’d never so much as trimmed a hedge before, I had the brilliant notion that I could chop down a tree. We’d never had a live tree, though I’d always wanted one, and I was finally in charge of the decision. It seemed like a perfect new Christmas activity for the three of us. What could go wrong?

To be honest, the idea of it felt empowering. Any images I’d seen of families chopping down their Christmas trees always showcased the father valiantly felling the mighty pine. This would be a great way to show my children that women can do anything. Besides, how sweet would it be to get all bundled up together and search for our perfect tree in a wintery wonderland? How fun! How festive!

Oakley and Jamie – then seven and four years old – loved the idea, and marveled that their very own mother was going to cut down a tree. Truthfully, I didn’t really consider the details of this endeavor, like how I would actually cut it down, what supplies were needed, etc. People do it all the time, surely it wasn’t too complicated.

When we arrived at the tree farm, and were about to sally forth in close-to-freezing temperatures, I noticed both children had shed all winter gear in the car. The only warm clothing they would grudgingly permit were their coats. They’d abandoned their snow boots at home, and I had already accepted that their light-up sneakers wouldn’t protect their baby feet from the wet and cold. But hats, scarves, and gloves? Nope. No amount of cajoling, yelling or bribing made a difference. There comes a point when you just have to let the little darlings learn the hard way, so off we went, grabbing the saw and sled thankfully provided by the farm. The frosty air was filled with merriment. Christmas carols played over the speakers, and we sang along as we began our search through the infinite rows of trees. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” never sounded so good as when my tiny tenors belted it out.

It started out so promising. We were singing. We were laughing. We were playing hide and seek between the trees. Then, reality hit. Though the children loved the idea of cutting down our tree, the actual trudging through the slush and mud in the cold they could have done without. The incessant requests for food; the arguing over who gets to pick out the tree or who gets to pull the sled with mom or who gets to hold the saw (only mom); complaining about the cold or about not being able to pet all the dogs or not being able to run as fast as possible to find the end of the trees; the running away; the tripping over tree stumps and screaming blue murder… all of that I could have done without.

After a few tears, we finally agreed on a tree, and I hunkered down for what I thought would be an easy task, requiring minimal effort. I hadn’t brought anything to lay on, because, in my Christmas fantasy, cutting the tree didn’t involve me spread out on the ground, unable to see through the spiky pine needles and getting muddy. I don’t know how I thought I’d separate the tree from its roots; that was one of the details I’d overlooked. Sawing through the trunk while prostrate on frozen mud was almost as grueling as hauling two tantrums-in-progress through a tree farm crowded with happy families. I sawed for all I was worth, cursing under my breath. For a scary few minutes, I wished I had a man.

Eventually, sheer determination overcame fatigue, and the tree fell. The kids cheered. The funny thing is, if you cut down a small Christmas tree in front of young children, they will actually believe you have super powers. Never mind that the trunk is only about 5 inches in diameter; they don’t need to know that. All they will know is that you used a real saw and cut down an actual flipping tree. That jubilation lasted about five minutes.

As we pulled our little tree towards the mile-long checkout line, my kids moaning pitifully, I looked around at the other families, enjoying themselves as they skipped through the absolutely endless field of trees. Spying a particularly jolly family, I pointed them out to my grouchy kids. “See?” I implored, “They’re not arguing. They’re not crying. They’re having fun!” The kids were unimpressed. “They have a dog!” Jamie wailed, as if that was the missing link. I rolled my eyes. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t my kids just enjoy their damn selves and make happy memories with me? Glaring at that family, I saw they wore matching scarves and Santa hats. I couldn’t get my children to even wear scarves, let alone matching ones. Sighing heavily, I ignored the plaintive cries of impending death by frostbite, and resigned myself to acceptance. This had been a bad idea. I needed a drink.

The ride home was 30 minutes, an eternity when trapped with two whining children convinced they will lose all fingers and toes to frostbite, and apparently starving because “there are no Goldfish in this van.” Where they get their flare for the dramatic, I really don’t know. I wanted to stick a fork in my eye. Even the fresh scent of pine and the Ray Conniff Singers couldn’t help that mess. I made a mental note never to do this again.

Finally snug and dry at home, distributing hot chocolate with tons of marshmallows, the mood shifted from despair to delight. The kids’ favorite Christmas music played as I set up the tree I had single-handedly cut down. We decorated it with abandon as we shoved fistfuls of Goldfish into our mouths. Gazing at our hard-won tree covered in enough tinsel to choke an ox and at least 2,000 twinkling lights, my ears tuned in to the sweet chatter of excited children. They were gushing about their earlier adventure. I listened in disbelief as they described an entirely different reality than the one I’d experienced. They were still breathlessly reveling in the events of the day as I hustled them upstairs at bedtime. “Can we do this every Christmas?” Jamie, formerly the most vocal protestor in the search party, begged. “Of course,” I told them. A chorus of “Yay, Mom!” followed me down the stairs, where my trophy stood glowing in the darkened living room.

In the cozy warmth of revisionist history that is so typical of children’s memories, our first tree-cutting had apparently been a joyful experience, and not at all the migraine-inducing ordeal I remembered. Thus, a new tradition was established. But when we go a-tree huntin’ now, I go prepared: extra gloves stuffed in my coat pockets for when the kiddos realize they can actually perceive cold, plenty of snacks and drinks in the van to sustain them, when they become understandably weakened from their adventure, and a big bottle of Advil for mom, for the ride home.

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