As a child, we got our Christmas tree from St. Peter’s Church which was only a block away from where we lived in downtown Toronto. An argument ensued annually between my folks and the guy they called “the robber.” He was notorious for selling overpriced Christmas trees in the shadow of the colossal crucifix perched high on Church property. Each year they returned hopeful, of a miraculous outcome. Instead, the same drill followed. Once home, the string holding the tightly wound tree was released and so too were all the frustrations in its acquisition. An enchanting process for my folks where I got to witness the child in them come to life once a year. Every part of the preparation of the tree was exciting for them including watering the fir which was maintained on a schedule that would make the military proud. My mother decorated it with delicate European baubles. She was particularly fond of the candle ornaments which were never lit. Our fire violations existed in more creative ways. I’m confident if she had a large enough doily it would have served as a skirt for the tree.
My dad was nuts about the big multicolored Christmas bulbs, eight to a strand, and he maxed them out every year unknowingly testing the weight of the tree. After he lit the crap out of the decorated tree one could barely see the silhouette of what they had brought home. The base enveloped in a labyrinth of extension cords resembling an octopus from an episode of Jacques Cousteau. The tree was so lit, tangled in cords and supporting so much weight, we were fortunate it never collapsed or worse yet combusted. All a fleeting memory once the electricity bill arrived in January.
When the mid-sixties arrived, the idea of an artificial Christmas tree resonated with my folks. It required no maintenance and was a modern concept for an immigrant couple from Czechoslovakia. I watched my dad assemble the tree struggling as he balanced himself, one knee on the floor the other bent, cigarette dangling loosely in his mouth, smoke wafting blanketing the fake tree. The branches unilaterally inserted into the designated spots indicated on the pole by red smudges, strategically pointing at 45-degree angles surrounding the pole. My mother decorated while sporting a fresh beehive hairdo still stiff from the glazing of hairspray from the local hairdresser. The finale being mounds of furry tinsel shrouding the tree. “Oh look,” she observed, with such delight, immaculately dressed in Christmas attire. “The tree looks like Zsa Zsa Gabor!”
Fruitcakes had already found their way into our home. We never ate them. Anything outside of a walnut tort simply wasn’t real food never mind dessert. Being resourceful my folks used them as door stoppers for carrying groceries into the house as they were surprisingly heavy. For now, they were symbols of the season placed under the tree as placeholders for presents to come. The lights strategically wrapped, the decorations complete we marveled when it came to the lighting of the tree. My father bent down behind the monstrosity of wiring to plug it in, another fresh lit cigarette barely half an inch from the ignitable branches, hanging from the corner of his mouth. The six-inch heap of dark brown extension cords was now serving as an electrical skirt burying a wall plug that any fire marshall would have been mortified to witness.
My eyes were shut tight when suddenly our modest home was lit with the promise of a festive season. Then the moment everyone waited for, the blinking. An essential feature for my dad. The pièce de ré·sis·tance was when he returned from the bathroom with a pine scented aerosol spray can misting the hell out of the tree. A fog so thick you would think air tankers were dumping fire retardant in our living room. Bent over coughing eyes burning I heard my dad speak.
“There… good as a real tree and we won’t have to negotiate with the robber at the church.” Each year the tree got adorned, and each year it smelled like the bathroom.
That tree is gone. It was the first generation of flammable fake trees with the aluminum strands incorporated in its branches. The lights were recalled shortly after with people getting electrocuted, followed by Public Service Announcements to not outfit electrical outlets for fire hazards. The Christmas candle ornaments are no longer manufactured because of house fires, and the lead content in the furry tinsel was removed from the market for obvious reasons. The old aerosol cans now replaced with new versions that come with special dispensation in how to properly dispose of them. The fruitcakes are now available in a selection of sizes exhibiting health warnings to those that have nut allergies or require gluten-free goods. Smoking in ones home has also become a rarity. Tobacco typically consumed outside with home-rolled cigarettes in some cases eliminated or replaced with weed, rolling papers, and fancy bongs. An inconceivable Christmas wish back then except for the occasional stoner’s Christmas list, now a reality. As dangerous and toxic a tree that it once was we all had one, and like other families, we had trust around all of it. Our family’s faith was so strong in the season that it was unimaginable that anything remotely bad would happen. Perhaps that tenacious belief year after year brought us immunity from the cornucopia of fire hazard and toxic induced decorations that defined Christmas. Instead, we had trust in the magic of the season, in St. Nicholas, and in the hope of every twinkling light serving as a sign of blessings and abundance for the upcoming year.