Myth has it that one of the more joyous family activities of the year is Picking Out the Christmas Tree. The myth persists in spite of a growing body of evidence that on the stress scale it is pushing income tax time, back-to-school nights and extended family reunions.
I've been through the Christmas tree dodge for enough years to have learned a few tricks, and if by sharing them with you here I can save a family or two, then all of my Christmas tree stress will have been worthwhile.
There are five variables that have to be resolved in selecting a Christmas tree: (1) when to buy it; (2) what type of tree to get; (3) whether or not to shop around; (4) how large it should be; and (5) how much to pay for it.
And dealing with these variables are two very broad types of buyers: the Small and Cheap group and the Let's-Get-It-Over-With-at-Whatever-Price group.
(There are, of course, a number of mutations of these two groups that complicate the picture, but if the adults buying the tree belong to the same basic group, it is much easier to deal with the five variables.)
The advantages of buying a Christmas tree early are that the lots aren't crowded, there is a wide assortment of trees from which to choose, and you can get it over with well ahead of Christmas, thereby making it possible to restore family unity before the holidays.
The main disadvantage is that the lot owners are still euphoric about making a big enough killing to retire for the rest of the year and their trees are priced accordingly. You may also find that trees purchased early begin to disintegrate by Christmas Eve, thereby causing a fire hazard.
Members of the Small and Cheap group will want to shop endlessly at this stage of the game trying to find a bargain, and even the second group is likely to be appalled at paying enough for a tree to take the family to Hawaii for Christmas.
So my advice is to wait until six to 10 days before Christmas, when the lot owners are feeling a lot of anxiety.
A plain, simple, straight-arrow evergreen is decidedly the type of tree to get. Anything else will--and should--be regarded as ostentatious and an effort to use the holidays for social climbing. Flocked trees and exotic types belong in the lobby of the Irvine Co. or South Coast Plaza, not in your living room where you will be required to think about how much it cost every time you pass through. This is not a place to keep up with the Segerstroms.
Shopping around is probably the greatest single cause of disunity.
In general, most women like to shop better than most men. As a result, men tend to say, "I like it fine" when asked for an opinion of a tree at the first lot visited. Because he says this about every tree he is shown, the impact of his opinion dwindles steadily--especially as panic approaches when it becomes clear the family group is probably going to check out another lot or two.
Children are the man's natural ally here because they are eager to get a tree and take it home. They also tend to want the most expensive tree on the lot. My advice here is for the man to play it cool. Don't fawn over the first tree offered; say "hmmmm" a lot, and appear to be studying the contours of each entry. Then, when the psychological moment arrives, come down enthusiastically for one tree, preferably a relatively cheap evergreen. This works reasonably well.
Size, of course, depends on the room in which the tree will stand.
I am reminded of an answer--probably apocryphal--that Abraham Lincoln gave when asked how long a man's legs should be. Said Lincoln: "They should be long enough to reach from his tail to the ground."
Same way with your Christmas tree. You know you're not going to be able to sell one of those coffee table models--especially with children around--so give in gracefully on this one. Just make sure it isn't so tall that you have to trim it at either top or bottom.
And, finally, the price. This is the second most frequent cause of disunity. I don't think men generally are any more anxious to be ripped off than women, but they have a much higher tolerance for buying convenience by taking an overpriced tree if the alternative is spending the rest of the afternoon looking for a bargain. This frequently leads to one or the other partner saying, "Well, all right, then you decide," and stomping back to the car.
Beware of this ploy.
It will lead to endless second-guessing as the tree is found to have unsightly bare spots once you get it home or drops its needles and droops well before its time.
This warning also applies to what on the surface seems a positive solution to the Christmas tree problem: "This year, why don't you just go out and buy it yourself and then we won't have all these arguments."
This is an obvious trap that throws all the responsibility for a defective tree on a single member of the family. Don't fall into it. Everyone should carry this load equally.
One other thing to which you should be alert.
You will always visit a house or two over the holidays with a lovely, shapely tree which you will admire aloud. And the host or hostess will say, "Yes, and we got it for $1.79 three days before Christmas and they even delivered it."
The tendency at this point is to think of the $50 beauty drooping and dumping needles in your living room and covertly speculate on setting fire to your friend's tree.
Reject this kind of thinking. They may quite well be fudging on the price, and besides, you did the best you could, under difficult circumstances.