The Great Christmas Tree Theft of 1989: A Holiday Melodrama

Some people have beautiful Christmas stories to tell about their families. I do, too, but this isn’t one of them.

My parents did a lot of stuff when I was young that I now know was solely for my happiness. My dad took me to football games; my mom tolerated the Christmas tree. For twenty years we put the same 1970s artificial tree up in the living room, which made it the only three weeks of the year that any living went on in there. The tree was pretty good, as artificial trees go: it was made out of what felt like Astroturf, and every year we hung faded red and gold glass baubles on it, along with the same ornery you-can’t-make-us-stay-lit lights and loops of tinsel that drooped like the fur around a schnauzer’s face. We had the most gorgeous angel in the world to go atop the tree, and the year I moved out my mom threw her away, probably before my car was out of sight down the road. I don’t come from a normal family background, in case you guys can’t tell by how I turned out.

When I was in college, I moved home from the dorm three or so weeks before Christmas, which meant my mom would insist we didn’t need to put the tree up and my dad would go get the tree out of the spare room closet, where its Astroturf branches lived in a box. The tree was a pain in the ass to assemble. Every branch was separate, supposed to live in its own color-coded slot on the tree’s metal middle. The colors had worn off sometime in the mid-’70s. Christmas was a season of arguments and occasional tears, year after year. Actually it still is.

When I came home my sophomore year, I lost the battle of the tree. My mom had taken the box and the trimmings and moved them into my grandmother’s attic, half an hour away. I swear, my mom’s not a horrible person — I love her very much — but for some reason the streak of insanity in her side of the family manifested itself in the way she reacted to our Christmas tree every year. (Mine will probably make me into a crazy cat lady in about fifteen years. We haven’t had one of those in the family for a couple of generations, and all the alcoholic positions have been filled.)

I was too old to be as upset as I was over the tree, but I’m very much a traditionalist at heart, and Christmas meant performing the same comforting rituals every year. Put up the tree, wrap the presents on December 23rd, go to one family’s celebration on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day, watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year… I felt like the kid in “The House Without a Christmas Tree,” and I let it be known.

Finally my dad, the peacemaker, suggested that my mom steal the tree from where she worked.

My mom was (and still is) the town clerk of Nothingville, my hometown. The town, at least, knew what Christmas was supposed to be: they had a parade every year, followed by a big whole-town’s-invited luncheon. And they never skipped the tree. Someone (NOT my mom) put up a cheap but fairly pretty artificial tree every year, in the corner of the rec building attached to the town hall. The town offices closed a few days before Christmas every year, which meant the tree stood there in its corner, cold and lonely and unappreciated, blinking in the dark.

I should also mention that the dimensions of Nothingville are so small that our house was about a block from the town hall. Really, everything in town was located within a mile or two from everything else: a couple of stores, a nursing home (the only place I’ve ever seen with a crosswalk sign that reads AGED PEDESTRIAN XING), a florist’s shop, a gas station, town hall. There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Nothingville.

So you see how easily this plan worked.

On the last day the office was open, my dad and I wrestled the town’s tree, with lights and tinsel and ornaments still on it, into the bed of my dad’s truck. Because the truck was a stick shift, I couldn’t drive it home, so my mom, leaving work anyway, volunteered. I walked home, which was a missed opportunity. Well, maybe not. I didn’t own a video camera anyway.

My mom drove the truck one block down the road like a bat out of hell, with my dad sitting in the back holding onto the tree with one hand and the side of the truck bed with the other. To this day, years past their divorce, that drive is a point of contention. My dad swears my mom lit out for home like the beat-up truck was Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car. My mom maintains that she drove the speed limit (35), and recalls singing along with “Holly Jolly Christmas” on the radio while she drove. Dad thinks she must have the song confused with “Hot Rod Lincoln,” but I wasn’t in the truck and can’t weigh in on one side or the other.

No ornaments blew off the tree during the ride, though I did pick up a stray piece of tinsel that fell to the roadside.

In retrospect we shouldn’t have bothered “borrowing” the tree (which was returned to its rightful corner on Christmas afternoon). An unfamiliar Christmas tree is no better than no tree at all. The ornaments were pretty Hallmark creations, artificial-snow-encrusted glass globes that could withstand a fall to the carpet, and the tinsel actually looked like a garland of something and not a leash for an aging poodle. It didn’t have a star or an angel on top, and all its lights worked. It was a very pretty tree, but it wasn’t ours. It was like having a distant family member arrive in time for the holidays and camp out in your living room, making you twitch with surprise whenever you remembered he/she/it was there.

Postscript: a couple of years later, I told this story to my boyfriend at the time, D. He didn’t believe me until I had both parents independently confirm the story (by then, to everyone’s relief including mine, they’d divorced). D was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known, and he got such a kick out of the mental image of my dad clinging to the tree and the truck that I think he wished the whole insane business had happened in his family so he could tell the story.

That year he bought a box of Christmas cards that, he told me, he’d selected just so he could send one to my mom. He didn’t let me see the cards in advance. So when I got to my mom’s house on Christmas Eve, the first thing I did was ask to see D’s card. On the front was a very pretty little watercolor of a figure in mittens and earmuffs, walking down a dusky street, dragging a freshly chopped evergreen behind him in the snow.

On the inside was the following verse:
“How dear to me/The memory/Of bringing home the Christmas tree.”

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13 Responses to “The Great Christmas Tree Theft of 1989: A Holiday Melodrama”

  1. Fifteen years? Really, you think it will take that long?

    We always had a fake tree, too. Now I insist on real trees, because vacuuming up all those ^@I$@# needles fr six months after truly helps me to feel that Xmasy joy.

  2. Oh No! That’s too funny!

  3. pandemonic Says:

    I agree… too funny.

  4. There is, as we say in the south, a whole ‘nother story about a real tree. In short, it was D’s tree one year, and the day after he and I decorated it beautifully, it was absolutely covered in spiders. Little brown spiders on every branch, every space on every branch, on the ornaments… We had to throw it out. Immediately. He had his house fumigated, but never wholly got rid of the spiders.
    It makes me itch to think about it.

  5. TheOtherIvy Says:

    The spider tree sounds horrifying.

    I can understand being upset about the lack of tree. What a story! The card was funny; what did your family think of it?

  6. LOL, I have a story about a stolen Turkey. I’ll save it for next Thanksgiving.

  7. I’m just giggling like an idiot. What a great story.

  8. This was a priceless story, and your hilarious ex’s Christmas card choice was the ideal ending to your tale.

    The truth is that crazy families are far more interesting than boring old normal happy families.

  9. Just stopping by to wish you a deadpan Christmas!

  10. antimother Says:

    This was a fun read and it has reminded me of two funny Christmas tree stories. I wonder if I should wait until next Christmas to tell them?

  11. Ah, those holiday memories!
    In our family, we all loved the Christmas tree, once it was finished, but getting to that point was all-out war. There were 5 in the family, each member having an opinion on how it should look, where it should come from, when it should be procured, and so forth. By the time the tangled strands of lights were hunted down, most of us were simply sullen and silent. The real magic of Christmas was that as soon as the tree was decorated, the beauty of it made everything peaceful again.

  12. tigereye Says:

    It makes me wish I’d spent some Christmases at your house…

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