The Christmas aisle at the local hardware store, late on an early-December Friday afternoon, doesn’t seem like a place for existential questions, and yet that is exactly where and when I found myself pondering one this week.
Cane and I had gone to get a Christmas tree stand (though neither of us identifies as Christian and it should more appropriately be called a pagan tree stand) because we’d just bought a tree and needed something to hold it up.
There was an earlier time, one that now feels like what we might call a lifetime or two ago, that we bought a stand together. I remember, then, wavering between a cheap and flimsy one and another that was sturdier and more expensive. “Let’s get the good one,” I’d said. “I hate buying cheap things that don’t last.” I had imagined us using the stand for years of Christmases together in our home.
As it turned out, we didn’t. I still have that stand, but parts of it have broken off, and this is the first Christmas in six years that we’ve lived together in the same home. The stand is usable, sort of, but not easy to use. Earlier this week, I put in it a small tree that I’ve placed on the front deck we had built this summer. The tree is a little tippy, but it works well enough for a small outside tree that no one is likely to brush up against.
Two years ago, I was ready to swear off real trees forever, but there I was in the hardware store needing a new stand because I now have two of them.
Two years ago, I bought a thing I once said I’d never buy: an artificial tree. It was my first Christmas in this house, living alone, and so many things then were about figuring out how to live independently. I had a child coming home for the holidays, and even though he was coming to a place that had never been his home I wanted it to feel like home. That meant I needed a tree. I wanted a tree I could manage by myself, both physically and financially, for not only that year but for years to come. A small, pre-lit plastic tree that I would only have to buy once seemed like the perfect answer.
It was–until it wasn’t.
Last year I kinda hated that tree. I told myself it wasn’t the tree, with its bottle-brush looking foliage, that made me sad every time I looked at it; it was a Covid-bubble Christmas in a pre-vaccine pandemic that was making me sad. But still, it did make me sad, a feeling that only increased when one of the strings of lights stopped working. I put that tree away the day after Christmas and immediately felt lighter and better.
As December approached this year, I felt torn about the tree question. I’ll spare you all the arguments and counter-arguments I wrestled with, and the results of all my Google searches for a better not-real-tree alternative; I’ll just say that after a period of thinking about it, we eventually concluded we’d probably get a real tree again. Thanksgiving weekend we walked two blocks from our house to a small tree lot just to look, and when the scent of cut fir hit me I knew: No more sad, plastic tree for me. Tuesday I packed up the fake one and dropped it off at a thrift store, hoping it might be someone else’s perfect solution now. I was committing to the real deal.
So, there we were at the hardware store late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the long week after Thanksgiving, facing the same question we’d faced all those years ago when we were buying a stand for a tree for a different house and a different kind of holiday than the ones we now have.
Our choices? A cheap plastic stand for $19.99 and the most solid-looking, no-plastic, old-fashioned tree stand I’ve ever seen for $70.00. There were several left of the cheap ones, and only one expensive one. The box for the expensive one had “Lifetime” printed in large red letters on every side of it.
What is a lifetime? I wondered. How can we possibly we know what we’ll need for a lifetime?
I thought about how so many young families now talk about their desire for “a forever home,” a concept I don’t remember from my own early days of homeownership. Although I lived in one house from the ages of 4 to 18, I’ve lived in and owned five different homes in the past 30 years. I’ve been married three times. I really couldn’t tell you how many lifetimes I’ve lived. Even though Cane and I love the house we now live in, we know we could well be somewhere else ten years from now. Our holidays could (likely will) be different again, our health could be different, our financial situation could be different, the world could be different. We might not have the desire or capacity for the kind of tree that needs a heavy-duty stand. We know, in ways we couldn’t have known when we bought our last stand together, that ten years from now one or both of us could again be facing the tree question alone. Ten years, or months, or days from now, everything could be different.
So, what to do? How to spend our money? What future to bet on? I suppose that for many people, perhaps most young people, a tree stand is just a tree stand, and buying one is only another item on a long list of holiday to-dos, but sometimes, late on an early-December Friday afternoon in the aisle of a neighborhood hardware store, for a couple of more old-than-young people who know that loss and change are the warp and weft of every life, a tree stand can also be an embodiment of faith and hope and love.
We bought the good one.