Pastic Trees, Real People

Copyright © 1994, 2011 William Mego

I know I probably shouldn't have done it, but every year the silly debate, about whether real Christmas tree are better than artificial trees, gets more and more annoying.

So I guess I can be forgiven for explaining to some upper class kids who were extolling the virtues of real trees, that “tannenbaum” is actually the German word for polycarbonate, a durable plastic from which the first Christmas trees were fashioned. Artificial Christmas trees, I explained, were invented many years ago in Germany, a nation with a proud tradition of Christmas celebration, wonderful craftsmanship and synthetic chemistry. In fact, the plastic tree was developed as a simultaneous tribute to those three pillars of German culture.

Since the kids had all heard of cuckoo clocks, I explained to them that the two shared much in common. Despite having high regard for cuckoos, cuckoo clocks no longer employ real cuckoos, but replica cuckoos also manufactured from traditional German polycarbonate.

Although the inventors tried to be as humane as possible, they soon found that satisfying even the most basic needs of a live bird inside a clock was incredibly difficult. Also, it seemed somewhat cruel to tease the bird by offering it freedom every hour only to snatch the cuckoo back inside by the feet, to spend the next 60 minutes in the dark.

Similarly, Christmas trees were made of an inert polymer out of regard for the sensitivities of real trees which, they suspected, probably didn't enjoy being chopped down, and left to die a slow humiliating death covered with light bulbs. Also, like the inside of the clocks, plastic trees were much easier to keep clean inside the house.

And that's the way things were, I told them, for many years. It was only during the first OPEC oil crisis that people began to use trees that had been grown on farms. That was because the price of plastic, which was made from oil, went through the roof.

In addition, more and more people began to worry about the environment. Real trees were not only cheaper, but they had the distinct advantage of being considerably more biodegradable than the original polycarbonate “tannenbaums.”

However, I said, since I am a sentimental traditionalist, I preferred the old fashioned way. And that is why I have a plastic tree.

Even though the story wasn't any nuttier than most of the things that have come out of Washington during the last few weeks, I don't think the kids believed me. Young people are so cynical these days. But it shut them up, which is precisely why the guys in Washing talk like that. If you tell people something that is outrageous enough they simply won't know what to say, which in modern politics counts as a victory.

The true reason I don't have a real tree, as long-time readers know, is that I was once almost barbecued by one that exploded into flame so fast that I didn't have time to jump back.

I guess my face wore an expression of surprise. In fact, without eyebrows, I managed to keep that look of perpetual surprise for quite some time. By the time the hair on the front of my head, which was all dark and crinkly like that of a woolly mammoth, had grown back, I had developed a decided affection for trees with less incendiary habits. For a few years, I tried to make our artificial tree look more real by leaving out a few branches on one side and hiding a few leftover Halloween plastic spiders here and there among the needles. But these days I don't even bother with the aerosol can of real tree smell and the fake polyethylene needles that we used to spread around the carpet.

Ever since we combined it with branches from a similar garage-sale tree, our tree hasn't looked quite so pathetic. Even so, every year I swear that I will buy a nicer one, that is easier to assemble, and which looks less like Dr. Frankenstein's tree.

But I'm afraid that, when I wasn't looking the silly thing somehow managed to become part of the family. It's a crummy tree, but it's our crummy tree, and it has maintained a comfortable, if not particularly stately, presence over many wonderful years.

And to put things in perspective, it is important to note that more than a third of letters to Santa ask for only a single gift, and that gift is almost never a toy or a tree. Most people don't know that.

Those kids ask for a coat, some shoes, or a father to feed and protect them. It says something about the world that those may be the toughest wishes to grant.

We have long relied upon the government to tend to the real needs of the disadvantaged. Perhaps that was foolish. But if this coming year is indeed, as many predict, the year that public charity dies, then it's not too soon to rediscover the traditions that private citizens used to have, especially at Christmas.

In an article on gangs, the Economist wrote “That alone makes (gangs) unique. They are strong and thriving institutions in a part of the world where every other institution – family, school, church – has crumbled virtually to dust.”

I never thought I'd see my country discussed like that, and I never thought I'd agree with it, especially at Christmas. But many of our private institutions have crumbled from neglect. In some areas it's not so noticeable because the ruins are hidden behind soaring incomes and frenetic lifestyles, but they're still there, waiting to be rebuilt.

It's time I think, to build them back up, and stop concerning ourselves with things that really don't matter. As I told the kids, it's okay if their Christmas trees are plastic, just as long as the people are real.