“It’s time!” says Muriel, as I get into her car. We’re both wearing masks. “For what?” I ask. “Aren’t we going grocery shopping?” “Yes, of course,” she says, “but before that, we’re going to buy my Christmas tree!”
She says she’s been decorating a tree for Christmas every year since she was a teenager. “It’s been my ‘thing’ — first in my parents’ home and then in my own.” This year, it seemed like Covid-19 had torpedoed Christmas. The week before, we drove by the place where she usually picks up a tree, but there weren’t any. “There are now!” she says. And she wants to get hers right away.
The place is five minutes away, an open backyard at the corner of one of the main roads into town. One week ago, it was just bare earth, with a low fence bordering the empty space. Now it’s bristling with maybe 60 perky little fir trees, just waiting to be collected and carried away. Yes, I will admit there’s always a shadow hanging over the subject of “live” Christmas trees. Yes, these healthy plants were once growing in the earth, standing in neat rows, in a farm dedicated to others of their kind. Yes, they’ve been cut down and are no longer technically alive. Yes, we should all frown on such activities.
But I choose to see, instead, the homes that will soon envelop every single one of these shaggy conical trees. There will be gifts under the branches, twinkling decorations and the scent of home-cooked feasts wafting out of warm kitchens. Just as Muriel and I exit her car, a tubby, round-faced man appears and says, “Hello ladies! Are ya here to buy a tree? Awww! Whatta shame! We’re all sold out!” Then immediately he throws his head back and laughs out loud. “Only kidding!” he says.
He turns out to be the kind of salesman who missed his calling as a stand-up comedian. “See this one here?” he says, as we walk into the yard. “Ain’t she just BEAUTIFUL? Well! You shoulda seen her mother!” Another uproarious chuckle. And so it goes. Muriel casts her practised eye around, as we stand in the thick of the small artificial forest. The fresh tang of the firs, distinct and woody with an after-scent of lemon, is all around us.
She’s looking for a tree that’s just under six feet tall and well-proportioned. She finds one quickly enough. The salesman says, “Good choice! But wait — that’s my favourite tree in this whole bunch! So there’s a premium on her —” big laugh “— just kidding!” He wraps his arms around the little tree, picks it up and places it gently on narrow netting-platform with a large red ring in the centre. When it’s pushed through, the tree acquires a sort of hair-net, keeping it neat.
The salesman takes payment, joking all the way as he loads the tree into her car. “He sure was merry!” I say. “Tis the Season,” says Muriel, smiling.
Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column