All I wanted was a Christmas tree. We had returned from vacation two days before Christmas, and the thought of waking up on Christmas morning to an empty living room inspired aching sadness in me. I could not let it happen to my kids, to me. Mostly to me. It was all about me. I needed the day to be perfect.
My Voltaire was rusty, or I’d have remembered that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Instead, I almost ruined Christmas.
Christmas Eve came, and I needed to find a Christmas tree. We had purchased a tree the year before from a tree farm up on Skyline Rd, high above the Silicon Valley. There was no time to make that trek again this year, and little inclination: We hadn’t even stalked, hunted, and cut down our last tree, so we’d basically driven a long way to point to a tree and say “That one!” and have it tied to our car for a long drive home. There had to be an easier way.
And since we’ve been living in the area for many years now, we’ve come across lots of tree lots that pop up in parking lots and on school grounds just before the holidays. They’re usually the same places that have pumpkin patches just before Halloween. We started out for the closest one I could remember, just a mile away from home: I’d have a tree in twenty minutes, and be home decorating it within the hour.
I was in a hurry anyway because I still had to drive up to San Francisco to pick up a gift for my wife that I had tried to get before our vacation, but was out of stock so I had to have it ordered for me. I needed a couple of hours to make that round-trip journey, and if I missed a time window I wasn’t going to have a present for my wife. Well, sure, I had other gifts for her, but this one was the one that was going to make Christmas perfect. So my deadline was in the back of my head the whole time we drove to the Christmas tree lot.
Or, I should say, what used to be the Christmas tree lot. It wasn’t there anymore. Every year it was there, in the parking lot of a nearby Sears, but this year it was gone. So was the Sears. The entire building had been demolished and the lot was being used for construction materials. I could feel my heart sink: the day wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped.
We drove farther afield, to what we thought was another lot: Nothing. We drove more, to a lot we’d purchased a tree from three years before: Nothing. We drove more, to a lot we’d seen trees at many times before: Nothing. We were now three towns over, and the kids were going a little crazy in the back, and I was growing more and more frustrated as the day, and Christmas, seemed in jeopardy of being ruined by the lack of a Christmas tree.
We drove to one more lot, next to a Denny’s in Redwood City, but what was usually a tree lot was just a recycling center. I had no energy left. The kids had no restraint left. My wife suggested we have lunch at Denny’s and call around to try to find another lot. The thought of ruining Christmas Eve by eating at Denny’s instead of cooking at home, or eating somewhere nicer put another nail in, so although I agreed, I wasn’t happy about it. And it showed.
We sat in the Denny’s and while my wife looked for another lot, I sat in frustrated, moody monotonous silence, occasionally snapping at the kids when they got too loud. Every word out of my mouth was resentful. I was a joy to be around.
We ate. My wife found a lot that was open, four towns the other way. More time lost. As we loaded up the car we noticed our boy needed a diaper change. We had no diapers with us, because I had assumed we’d be home in twenty minutes, not two hours. There was a CVS next to the Denny’s, and I went inside for diapers. It was a mad house. Christmas Eve shoppers were flooding the place, and I ended up in a checkout line with the world’s slowest cashier and the world’s couponiest shopper. I was seething: I JUST WANT TO GET THESE DIAPERS AND GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE. I made it out, changed a diaper, and off we went to the only open tree lot we’d found.
We pulled in, unloaded the kids (who headed straight for the bouncy house), and went looking for one of the $19.95 Douglas firs advertised on a sign on the fence, but before we could find one we saw another sign: “Cash or Check only”. Of course we didn’t have either.
AAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHH. I started boiling over, but took my wife’s suggestion that I go find some cash somewhere while she stayed with the kids as they played. I found an ATM a few blocks over, and returned to choose a tree (after snapping at the kids when they refused to just stand still and pick a damned tree instead of running up and down the damned rows), paid “Grandpa” for it, and had it tied down to the car. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
We got the tree home, and I was almost outside of the time window to go up to San Francisco to get my wife’s present. I wrestled the tree into the house, and then wrestled with it and the tree stand, trying to get the tree upright and straight instead of leaning to one side. I never succeeded, and in the process of angrily slamming the tree base against the stand, I whipped a branch past my face and the needles scratched my left eye.
OH MY GOD.
I left the tree, leaning, frustrated with myself, with the world, with Christmas trees and stupid lots that weren’t open and with Christmas Eve and with shopping and with my kids. I drove up to San Francisco to pick up my wife’s gift, calming down a little before returning home. We decorated the tree, and I started to feel better. But we hadn’t worked out what we were going to do for dinner. We had no groceries, having been gone for a week, and nothing was going to be open. I tried to go to the grocery store, eventually, but of course it was closed. NOTHING WAS WORKING. After settling for Denny’s for lunch, the very last thing I wanted to do was give my family crappy food for dinner on Christmas Eve, but I had no choices left: I went to the McDonald’s drive-thru.
I was utterly defeated. And then, to top it all off, they took ten minutes to get the order ready at the window, while I sat there, fuming that I had to wait for food I didn’t even want in the first place at the end of the most obstacle-ridden, frustrating day I can remember having. I brought my mood home in Happy Meal boxes, noting the irony to myself the whole time.
It was twelve hours after our day had begun. My kids had eaten, my wife had eaten, I had eaten. I started to feel better, and really began to see what I’d been doing all day.
Christmas was never going to be ruined because I didn’t have a tree, or because I didn’t have one of the seven gifts I was going to get for my wife. It wasn’t going to be ruined because I didn’t make dinner, or because my tree had scratched my eye in self-defense. But Christmas could have been ruined by me, being a total prick in my quest for the perfect day.
I surrounded myself with my loving (and forgiving) family. And after the kids were in bed, my wife and I stayed up wrapping presents and assembling their gifts. I stayed up until 4 am building a train table and a corner kitchen, but instead of being annoyed by it, I reveled in it. I was finally doing Christmas right.