Over the last 20 years or so, our household has erected synthetic Christmas trees instead of the more traditional, “natural” ones. The ones we’ve had are relatively pricey but they last four or five years and you literally have to pinch a nettle to tell that they are not the real thing. Hang one of those little pine scent spreaders out of sight and the atmosphere is good enough to fool me.
When I was growing up, we never even thought about having a fake tree. Heading for the hills to select the perfect tree, be it hemlock, pine or cedar, was as much a part of Christmas and as much fun as opening gifts on the big morning. And, on more than one occasion, we four little boys had four different opinions in regard to perfection. I can’t remember a single time when we were all in unanimous agreement but Mom usually settled the argument by having us draw straws.
We also took great delight in hiking, well over two miles each way, across the mountain to harvest fresh holly that grew wild in one of the hollers that headed up behind Blair Branch. Uncle Stevie Craft or Uncle Willie Adams would shoot mistletoe out of the tops of black-gum trees with a .22 rifle by aiming at the point where it attached to the tree limb. By the time I was 10 years old, I was marksman enough to borrow Uncle Willie’s model 37 Winchester rifle and do that myself.
In the early years of our marriage, Loretta and I made a big deal out taking our combined brood of offspring to the hills and fields to spend the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving finding and harvesting the perfect cedar on either Robert and Mae Alice Collett’s or Junior and Molly Helton’s big farms and woods there on Harmon’s Lick in Garrard County. Sometimes it took a trip to both farms to reach a final decision but it made for great fun, family bonding, and physical exercise. Suffice to say we had no trouble getting the kids to bed that night.
Then one year, either ’89 or ’90, we started hearing about one house after another burning because a Christmas tree had caught fire. We’d always used a bucket filled with creek sand and gravel to erect our tree and hold water. After Christmas, I would take the tree to submerge it in a farm pond because nothing provides great cover for fish as well as a dead cedar.
Anyway, after the rash of house fires that year, when we took the tree down, Loretta said, “Let’s just take it to the garden and set it on fire and see how fast it burns. I’m just curious.”
So that’s what we did. I even went to the trouble of wadding up some newspapers for kindling to get it going. I touched a match to the paper, stepped back and suddenly we had what I can only describe as an explosion. To this day, I have no idea how I escaped that experiment without serious burns and, thank God, we’d had enough sense to have Loretta and the kids standing back several steps.
The tree, about seven feet tall, perfectly round and full, well-watered every day, burned in a matter of no more than three seconds. Had it been indoors, the flame would have exploded into three rooms adjoining our den. We gaped and stared — wide eyed and speechless — at each other for a few seconds.
Loretta said, “Never again will we have a real tree in the house.” And I agreed. And even if you have a live, potted tree, indoors for several weeks, don’t go believing that you are much safer. A tiny, electrical spark from a short or blown light bulb can ignite even a live tree.
If you think that I’m exaggerating, after Christmas, take your natural tree to the back yard, well away from your house, your neighbors’ or any out buildings, toss a lit kitchen match on it and, as they say on firecracker packs, “retire quickly.”
Here’s betting that, come next year, you will be shelling out the cash to purchase a fire-proof synthetic tree. In fact, you can probably find a nice one on sale the week after Christmas at 75 percent or more off. You might even run into Loretta, who just informed me that ours is four years old and it’s time for a change.
It still looks beautiful and perfectly fine to me. In fact, I bit into a nettle just last night to make sure it isn’t real.