What’s Pine Is Pine

keeping it real during the jolliest time of year

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Michelle Roberts

There used to be a place on the north side of Eau Claire where you could go out into the woods and cut your own Christmas tree. I don’t remember much about the place except you bought the tree from some guy in his house, and he had a big, happy dog named Pepsi. I remember thinking “Pepsi” was a great name for a dog, especially if you liked drinking Pepsi-Cola, but mostly because most dogs possess a great deal of pep. Then I wondered if the inventor of Pepsi-Cola called the drink “Pepsi” because it gives you pep.

Hold on, I’ll check.

We’d bring the tree home, hack off the bottom few inches of trunk, and then dad would plop it into an ice cream pale of water and let it lean against the wall of the garage for a few hours, sometimes overnight. He swore this made the tree last longer, remain moister, and stay greener, working some kind of holly jolly voodoo on its woody flesh.

OK, I just looked it up, and this is absolutely not at all how Pepsi (the soda) got its name. Also, fun fact, it used to be called “Brad’s Drink.” It was invented by a guy named Caleb. Obviously.

Wikipedia has no idea how Pepsi (the dog) got its name.

Anyway, this Christmas tree place was not your typical tree farm. Looking back, the owner may just have been some guy my dad knew who happened to live on a few acres of forestland and who was nice enough to let his friends chop down his trees for their temporary Yuletide enjoyment.

We only got our family’s tree there a couple of times. But as is often the case with early memories, the experience has ballooned within my mind, overshadowing other holiday seasons, giving me the impression that we hiked out into the woods every year to get a Christmas tree.

At any rate, it was fun. I bet I did a lot of complaining at the time, as I usually did when forced to leave the couch on a Saturday morning. (Cartoons don’t watch themselves, people.) But in the years since, my childhood nostalgia has pushed deep roots into that chunk of woods north of town. I remember how snowy it was. How tall and pretty the trees were. There was even a small stream over which we had to hop.

My dad carried the wood saw, and I just tagged along, too young to help out. We took my dad’s pickup truck, so when all was said and done, we pulled into the driveway, eager to show my mom and my sister the tree we’d found. We hoped they liked it. They usually did.

We’d bring the tree home, hack off the bottom few inches of trunk, and then dad would plop it into an ice cream pail of water and let it lean against the wall of the garage for a few hours, sometimes overnight. He swore this made the tree last longer, remain moister, and stay greener, working some kind of holly jolly voodoo on its woody flesh.

As a grown man who’s purchased a real Christmas tree ever year for almost two decades, I can tell you – this water bucket trick is total bullshit. Maybe today’s trees are genetically modified to last longer, but I’ve never once let it marinate overnight in an ice cream bucket, and they seem to hold ornaments just fine. 

We usually spent Christmas Eve and the next few days up in our cabin, near our extended family. This necessitated that luxury of festive luxuries, the second Christmas tree. However, while the tree we put up at home was usually a full-bodied, robust conifer, the cabin tree was usually ... less so.

Often my dad would tromp out into a swamp to a place where he swore great trees grew. He never really proved the swamp’s magical tree-growing ability though, as he usually came home with some pretty weird pine trees. And saying “weird” is being generous.

I shouldn’t complain about an auxiliary Christmas tree, of course. (It’s not like I’m the Queen of England. I know how lucky I was.) However. I do think it’s perfectly acceptable to ridicule my dad’s swamp trees. Because they were ridiculous.

Imagine an artificial Christmas tree with only a third of the branches installed, only it’s a real tree with smooth bark wrapping its slender trunk, giving it this bizarre, naked vibe. Imagine each tier of branches is set apart a good 12 inches. Imaging the branches are way longer than they should be. And imagine the whole tree is about 3 or 4 feet tall.

Imagine how hard it was to decorate. Imagine my dad’s sly smile as he sat in an old armchair, sipping from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, watching us struggle to place the lights and hang the ornaments. Imagine our family’s laughter. Imagine warm lamplight glowing through the cabin’s windows on a snowy evening when the world is so, so quiet.

Imagine that.

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