My parents always encouraged me to be my own person and to have fun, but the one thing they insisted on was to never mess with God. Or his #1 son. Or any representative, including the Holy Ghost or Saint Nick. "And if you do mess him," they used to say, "Never share it with other people who could potentially use it against you in the waiting line at St. Peter's pearly gates."
Good thing that this story wasn't really my idea. It was my heathen, Jewish friend, Joe "the Jew" Steinberger's blasphemy. And since he won't be in St. Peter's line anyways, I can just blame the whole thing on him. This is the kind of intellectual prowess one gains from watching Law and Order too often.
I need to mention that my family is cheap. Most of my clothing as a child came from K-mart because Walmart was priced out of our income bracket. It's amazing how little two tenured university professors can make these days. Now on to the story.
Most kids who come from families that aren't K-mart dependent are blessed to wake on Christmas morning smelling the fresh scent of pine needles. And maybe some Starbucks brewing. Not the Stims. We awoke to the smell of plastic from our 10-year old artifical (or "faux") Chrismas tree. Or maybe some mildly toxic fumes from when the cheap 10-year old Christmas tree lights shorted out and began to burn into the non-living plant. And no starbucks. Perhaps Maxwell House. If we were lucky.
So through the years, the Stims would go about erecting our Christmas tree in the same way: Step 1: Walk to the basement. Step 2: Search frantically for a huge box marked "Xmas Tree," which had somehow become lost in the last month since we took it down. Step 3: Haul the cardboard box upstairs. Step 4. Open box. Step 5. Place truck of tree (in reality a broomstick with holes punched throughout) in the "tree stand." Step 6. Insert plastic branches. This was by far the most critical part. The longer branches were, of course, to be inserted near the BOTTOM of the broomstick, the shorter toward the top. This gave the uninitiated the vague impression of a real tree, until they got within ten feet. Step 7 - Place lights and Nana's handmade, glass ornaments on said plastic branches. Nana's ornaments were the only part of the tree I approved of. They were made years ago, by hand, and were, without question, quite beautiful. They deserved to hang on the branches of a real, slowly dying tree. Step 8 - Complain that you would really like to have said real tree and promptly be yelled at, "If you want a real damn tree, you can take yourself down to K-mart and buy one. Oh wait, they don't sell real trees at K-mart. I guess you're screwed."
I hated that tree. I wanted to be like the other kids who went with their plaid clad fathers to pick out the biggest, freshest tree on the lot and haul it home on top of the station wagon. I didn't want to rummage for the tree in the basement. I had to come up with a plan. Enter my friend Joe. Joe the Jew.
Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, except myself and Joe the Jew.
As arranged previously, Joe entered through my basement-bedroom window at approximately 2:00 AM. Yes, I lived in the basement. All children who questioned the sanctity of the plastic Christmas tree were relegated to live their teenage years in the dark, musty basement next to the furnace room where the tree itself lived.
Of course I wasn't sleeping. I was decked out in my finest black outfit, black cap and black face-paint. The moment I had been awaiting for years had finally arrived. AND SLEEP WAS NOT ON THE MENU. Unfortunately, Joe was not as ambitious as I and was wearing his normal, brightly colored clothing. "Oh well", I thought, "if we're detected, the Jew will pay the consequences."
We silently crept up the stairs to the living room, where the plastic tree stood, mocking me. "It's time to die, Christmas tree," I whispered. "Die little plastic bitch, die." Then we went to work.
Step 1 - carefully remove Nana's handmade glass ornaments.
Step 2 - Hiss at Joe as he drops every fifth ornament.
Step 3 - Begin to remove the Christmas tree lights. Step 3 took well over an hour as the 10-year old tangled mess had to be carefully unthreaded.
Step 4 - Hiss at Joe as he began to freak out that my sleeping parents might wake up, hear intruders and call the police. Insist that everyone in room stop thinking of the legal consequences of breaking and entering on Christmas Eve.
Step 5 - Remove all the branches.
The All-important Step 6 - Begin to reassemble the tree. Place the larger branches in the upper holes, the smaller branches in the lower holes. Create the image that tree is standing upside down.
Step 7 - Step back and appreciate our handiwork. Hiss at Joe as he begins to loose confidence, asking himself "what if Hell really does exist."
Step 8 - Remind Joe that Jews don't believe in Hell.
Step 9 - Redecorate the tree with all lights and ornaments.
Step 10 - Write note from Santa, "Next time, get a REAL tree" and leave on end table.
Step 11 - Exit quietly. Smile and wait 'till sunrise.
Joe the Jew left as quietly as he had arrived… through the downstairs window. His job was done. I slept peacefully that Christmas Eve for the first time in years. In the morning, the Stims "Christmas Tree" would be revealed for what it really was, a cheap blue-light special manufactured in China.
I awoke just a few hours later, a little lost. In my drowsy confusion, I forgot the exploits of the night before and ran upstairs, looking forward to opening my stocking (since 16, the stocking was by far the best gift as those under the tree were far better for my younger siblings). I burst into the living room to find the entire Stims family, brother, sister, mother, father and nana, staring at the tree dumbfounded. My father began, "Does something look wrong with the Faux Tree?"
My mother: "Yeah. Something's definitely wrong with the Faux Tree."
My brother: "What's this note?"
Father: "Next time, Get a REAL tree?"
My brother: "Did Santa really write that?" Mother and father exchange confused glances. Then they look at me. I shrug. "Well, Andrew. Sometimes Santa works in mysterious ways."
I smile. Then I look over at Nana, sitting in the corner. She's not happy.
"Something wrong, Nana?" asks my mother.
"Christmas has been ruined."
We all look at the tree. Silence. There it is, standing there, a massive inverted triangle where a tree should be. An upside down tree. The hilarity of Nana's statement shook us.
Mother smiles. I smile. Christmas wasn't ruined, according to the rest of the family. But that would be the last time Christmas would be symbolized by plastic. (Of course I'm referring to the tree, and not the almighty credit card, which will continue to enable Americans to support our economy by purchasing more than they can really afford. Visa. It's everywhere you want to be.)
Since that day, 8 years ago, the Stims family has purchased a real, live tree every year. Which slowly dies in the family's care. Like millions like it. But poor Jon was not so lucky. He is the one tasked to get the tree each year. Yes, he wears plaid when he gets the tree. But that has more to do with his inability to progress beyond college fashion of the early 90s than any desire to become a lumberjack. Joe the Jew rests comfortably knowing his involvement has contributed to the death of at least 8 oxygen-producing pine trees. He also writes the Toilet Paper, and is loved by all the Stims. Except Nana.