December 22, 2007
You probably wouldn't recognize our Christmas tree as a Christmas tree if you saw it before we put on the ornaments. When I first met Walter (many moons ago), he was a young assistant professor, batching it on a pretty skimpy salary. That may or may not explain his choice of Christmas tree. He always called it a cowboy Christmas tree and claimed that he was allergic to regular trees in the pine and juniper families. He would walk out into the fields near his house and chop a yaupon (ilex vomitoria), which he placed in a traditional Christmas tree stand (more on this later) and decorated with fairly traditional ornaments. Once you get used to the idea that your Christmas tree is neither symmetrical nor fully branched out and that it would not smell like a "Christmas tree" unless you put it next to Glade Evergreen air freshener, you can kind of get used to this funkier version. It also explains why we don't put the tree up the day after Thanksgiving. A cut yaupon can last maybe ten days before it drops its leaves and berries.
I don't want you to get the impression, however, that it is all sweet and light with a yaupon "cowboy" Christmas tree. For one thing it took us more years than I care to remember to figure out how to keep it from falling over once we got it into the stand. To me, putting up the tree always meant choosing a day that Walter wasn't likely to be stressed or in a bad mood already, icing down a plentiful amount of beer before hand for the aftermath, and preparing for a lot of whatever the opposite of Christmas cheer is. There are huge logistical problems with using a yaupon as a Christmas tree: the trunk is too slender to fit securely in a tree stand (we would wrap it with a hand towel to make the trunk thicker and use shims to make it fit); the top is heavier than the bottom and the trunk is crooked (we would use bricks on the feet of stand as counterweights and sometimes secure it to the wall with guy wires). We would wrestle with the tree and sweat. If you find one with a thicker trunk, the balance problem grows in proportion. If you find a relatively balanced one, it is likely to be too skinny for the stand.
One time we had successfully gotten the tree up and decorated, when the heater (or maybe air conditioner, since we are in Texas) came on and the air through the vent was enough to upset the delicate balance we had achieved and tumble the tree over, ornaments and all. Another time I remember vividly happened when Davis was still a baby. Our friend Duffy was either living with us or had just come over for the annual curse-fest of Christmas tree night. I had laid a fire in the fireplace to add to the ambiance of the evening and had secured Davis out of harm's way in his high chair to watch, but not interfere. Walter thought he had a better plan this year (I think this is akin to inventing a better mouse trap, much pursued but rarely realized), and we got started. Let me just say that a storm with horrible winds blew up suddenly and somehow caused the chimney to stop drawing. Smoke filled the living room, setting off the smoke detectors (of which, because we were new parents, there were plenty). The wailing smoke detectors launched the dogs into a howling frenzy. The howling dogs and wailing smoke detector startled Davis into shrieks and tears. This all happened just as Walter let go of the eight-foot tree, which torqued under its own weight and toppled to the ground. After that, I honestly thought that Davis would have to grow up opening his presents under a poinsettia or perhaps a sprig of mistletoe.
We did take the next year off from cowboy Christmas trees and bought a live tree (which we set up in the loft to keep Davis from continuously de-nuding it) and that worked okay in the set up, but hit our pocketbook pretty hard. Walter relented the following year, but somehow we had the brilliant idea of moving the location of the tree. Did I say brilliant? Is there a word more superlative than brilliant? If you can think of it, insert it here _______. That year we began with the idea that we would hang our tree with wire from the loft, so that the Christmas tree stand was really just a prop. We could get as large and uneven a tree as we could wanted, tie it up with wire, and secure it to the loft railings where they made a right angle. Since then, it has never fallen down. . .never teetered . . .never even come close. Now our only problem is that Davis and Erin pick the tree, and it's always a gamble whether we can squeeze it through the door.
The other holiday tradition at the Buengers that I want to tell you about began just two years ago, but it is one we hope to keep and expand. Maybe other environmentally conscientious families have figured this out a long time ago, but three Christmases ago, we looked around at the crumpled paper of every color piled in heaps around our living room and decided that throwing away good paper year after year could not be a good thing. We had tried the strategy of opening the gifts carefully and saving the wrapping paper, but that drug out the gift exchange way past bedtime. Davis suggested a solution. He went to a fabric store after Christmas and bought discounted holiday fabric. With me pinning and him sewing, we made what we call "Ho Ho sacks," bags of various sizes with drawstrings. The next year and last year we added to the collection, so we now have between a dozen and two dozen re-usable bags to hold our Christmas gifts. It makes the wrapping faster and the clean up pure joy. Here are some of the ones already under the tree (you can see that we haven't phased out gift wrap and paper gift bags completely, but that is the plan):