The De-Tackyfication of the American Christmas Tree

In a time older than dirt, before kids carried $500 worth of sext computers in their pockets, my mom always used to drop me off at the same place at the "snooty mall" when she did Christmas shopping. Big department stores would have a couch, grand piano and Christmas tree, and I'd sit with a book, waiting until she came back, listening to Christmas carols and the occasional wise-guy pianist playing something from Looney Tunes.

One observation comes screaming out of these stories. Namely, "OH MY GOD, YOUR MOM LEFT YOU THERE??? YOU COULD HAVE BEEN RAPED AND CUT UP AND FED TO OTHER RAPED CHILDREN." Despite being a latchkey kid, I never worried about that. Instead, I thought the same thing whenever I sat and looked at those flawless be-ribboned department store trees: "Who are they kidding? Who even has one of those?" But that was a million years ago. In the ensuing time, it seems like the answer has become, "Kinda an awful lot of people."

Bear in mind, nobody really has these perfect trees now or ever. They're a kind of Ur-tree that does not and cannot exist in any world where shit gets done. They're not fake in the sense of those weird plastic trees that your aunt and uncle keep in a box and take out every year, making the living room smell like little green army men and making you hope that a short on the light strand melts the thing into great green globs of Christmas boogers. Instead, these trees possess a kind of unreality that only breaks into our universe in the backgrounds of movies/TV shows, in swank department stores or in the POWER LOBBY of some bigass law firm or corporation.

There are a few properties they have in common. One, they have a fearful or at least too-pyramidal symmetry. Squint until the ornaments and lights blur out, and you could be worshipping geometry. Santa comes down the chimney and stuffs your stockings full of proofs of the congruent angles of isosceles triangles.

Two, chances are, they were selected, arranged and decorated by someone paid thousands of dollars to professionally arrange and accessorize stuff. Compared to those, your tree looks like something put together by a wino who claims he's getting pushed around by the kiosk where they put the free newspaper, but that's not a fair comparison. It's like saying your mom's hair doesn't look as good as Anne Hathaway's at the Oscars. Of course it doesn't. Your mom doesn't have a team of engineers, a hot glue gun and shellack.

Three, those trees are huge. Since they can usually be found in rooms with abnormally high ceilings and where people don't need to functionally use space, size is no problem. These trees come from a dimension without small children, cats who nest in the tree skirt and dogs who drink the pine water out of the bowl. Also, since they're twenty goddamn feet tall, all the branches are thick enough to support matching giant Waterford crystal balls so large that they'd make your spindly six-foot Frasier Fir tip over.

Four, invariably, the tree decorator either streams evenly-placed ribbon down from the top of the tree, like a maypole, or wraps it in spirals of golden tulle.

Now, I bring all this up both because older people like telling boring stories to the young but also because this is an aesthetic that seems to have made its way into the average home. I make no pretensions to scientific rigor about this, but I now see tons of smaller versions of these types of trees in people's Christmas photos. Maybe through years of TV/movie imprinting or through the natural evolution of design, the classic Haphazard Fucked-Up Tree™ doesn't enjoy the kind of cultural dominance it once did.

(Two big exceptions. One, trees in households with kids. Every kid deserves to grow up with a tree with the weird-toy ornaments he picked out, or the deformed pasta-glued-on-styrofoam-balls he made. Kids don't know about color balance, theme or symmetry, and they have every right to enjoy a world of barftastic chaos before they develop refined tastes and start hating shit, like the rest of us. Two, trees in tiny apartments always seem to have a kind of adorably thrown-together look, like the residents were too busy leading busy urban lives to really commit to suburban mawkishness. Also, many of these people are drunks. I once saw a tree topped with a Guinness bottle (the bottom had been cored out) and decorated with cigarette packs and ribbons of unused condom. That tree was a vision.)

When I was a wee little idiot, back in a time of cell phones the size of volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary lashed together with boat rigging, trees came three ways, and, retrospectively, all of them looked awful:

  • Flocking: They're much more difficult to find these days, but tree lots used to be at least a third filled with formerly natural, beautiful trees sprayed with white cottage cheesey crap. From what I recall from nightly news people saying, "COMING UP AT 11: THE TOWERING INFERNO OF BACKDRAFTS THAT'S BURNING DOWN YOUR HOUSE RIGHT NOW," this stuff was slightly less lethal than napalm. With something like a sap-filled desiccating tree, that takes only one shorted-out light to incinerate half your living room, giving it help seems like a bad idea. Ironically, all these trees looked fucking retardant. No, really. They looked like someone had already emptied a fire extinguisher on them.
  • Tinsel Garland: Why don't you just hang dollar bills on the branches? Your tree already looks like a stripper.
  • Tinsel "Icicles": As a kid, these always looked amazing, but now they look like the T-1000 caught a Christmas flu and sneezed the fuck all over everything. (Robert Patrick holds up a picture of the Son of God—"HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY?"—then morphs into a giant box of myrrh.) Also, these trees are murder on flash photography. All the lights are beautiful and blinking and reflecting off the tinsel, and then your flash goes off, and you look at your picture and you have SOVIET TREE. IS GRAY AND NO LIGHT. VERY MUCH UTILITY. IS MADE OF ALUMINUM, YES? Speaking of which, years ago, I got to help un-decorate a tree with some ancient aluminum tinsel somebody's parent or grandparent had found in the attic. It was amazing. You just kept yanking it off and wadding and wadding and wadding until you had a fearsome METAL BALL. Modern plastic tinsel offers no comparable weaponized joy, unless you count finding stray strands of it six months later while cleaning house, then hearing it tangle around the brush as the vacuum starts screaming.

The fact that these sorts of trees seem less and less common goes against the grain of a cultural assumption that we kind of take as a given with America: that taste is entropic, and that in any given reaction, the substances going in will always come out tackier. We go from Grace Kelly to Marilyn Monroe to Cindy Crawford to a Kardashian. Dumb lyrics, "JUICY"-ass sweatpants, teens with camel toe, pants fall down, someone taps me on the shoulder every five minutes, no one speaks English anymore.

For some reason, though, it's popular to defy that progression with the Christmas tree and actually make it more complicated. Blame Martha Stewart and her ilk if you want, but we seem to place more of a premium on tree arrangement and craft. We have flown in the face of every slothful let's-walk-this-direction-because-it's-downhill tendency in our culture and made our lives more difficult during a season that's already trying and difficult enough. We've embraced tree-craft. That's kind of cool.

Just please, I beg of you, stop wrapping your tree in golden tulle. It makes it look like one of the Jolly Green Giant's bridesmaids.