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Tammy Swift, Published December 14 2013

Swift: Nuclear warhead design has nothing on Christmas tree

‘Wouldn’t it be fun to set up the tree?”

My mother’s question, posed during Thanksgiving break, seemed so harmless – even inviting.

After all, I had once been the family’s official tree-trimmer. One of my favorite jobs was to turn on an old movie and decorate the tree late at night. It was an elaborate, painfully perfectionistic process, which involved a careful juxtaposition of lights, an artful draping of tinsel and an obsessive spacing of ornaments (no same-color ornaments side by side!).

But over time, I lost some of my enthusiasm for the job. Today, I decorate a tree, but I try to leave my Marthazilla at the door.

I decided I could help my mother bedazzle one of the three trees she decorates every year. Even though she’s in her 70s, she is the ultimate Christmas elf. She still likes to deck the halls as if she were a spry 40-year-old homemaker with two nimble knees and a gaggle of kids to chase upstairs to get the Nativity scene.

And so the process began. We marched down to the basement – aka as Marge’s Holiday Warehouse of Infinity – and began schlepping boxes upstairs. Santa Bears. Toy sleds. Ceramic Christmas trees. Potpourri Christmas trees. An animatronic Santa who reads a naughty-and-nice list and then emits a terrifying electronic chuckle.

Finally, at the bottom of the pile we found it: The Tree. Like all artificial trees, it was bulging out of its well-worn carton. (This mysterious phenomenon, in which a tree seems to gain weight so it will never again fit in its box after one use, is called treebesity.)

As we removed the faux fir from its nest, I groaned inwardly. I had forgotten that this was a really old tree. I mean old. Like it might have once graced Betsy Ross’ parlor. The instructions had been lost long ago. Each branch had to be inserted individually, according to color. But much of the paint had worn away. And the manufacturer had sadistically color-coded it in a supremely unhelpful spectrum of colors.

“Uh-oh,” Mom said. “Last year, when I was taking it apart, I thought I should repaint the branches so it was color-coded again. Guess I forgot.”

Granted, tree technology has skyrocketed since Old Piney first arrived in Dakota Territory by ox cart. Mom happens to come from that thrifty generation that won’t throw out a bruised peach, a semi-broken recliner or an artificial tree until it has lost every last shred of usefulness.

And so we spent the next hour trying to sort and identify branches. Had this branch originally been painted dark charcoal or light black? Were these branches painted maroon or had they simply rusted? Did that bent and mangled branch look longer than this other bent and mangled branch?

Assembly was even more exciting. Was a tree supposed to be shaped like Jayne Mansfield? Why were there extra branches in the rust row? Had they been mixed up with the burnt sienna row? It felt like we were building a nuclear warhead.

In the end, of course, it all worked out. Once we added the lights, drizzled it with tinsel and camouflaged it with ornaments, it looked perfectly tree-shaped. In fact, it was downright pretty.

Just as long as you didn’t know what went into assembling it.

Welcome to Joseph’s Amazing Monochromatic Dream Tree.


Tammy Swift writes a lifestyle column every Sunday in Variety. Readers can reach her at tswiftsletten@gmail.com