Todd Johnson on Fake Christmas Trees

Todd Johnson’s childhood was filled with artificial Christmas trees. When he grew up, he wanted nothing but the real thing. Until now.

illustration by Michael Witte

Faking It
In defense of artificial Christmas trees, bubble lights, and childhood memories—the tackier the better.

My first Christmas as a new homeowner was to be a season of magic and merriment: chipmunks waltzing across downy drifts of snow on my front yard, neighborhood carolers—voices sweet as sugar—wishing me “tidings of comfort and joy,” and—best of all—a real Christmas tree. I would breath deep and let the spicy spruce scent wash away years of fake tree tyranny inflicted upon me by an uncaring mother who found real trees “expensive and difficult” and dead pine needles “a nuisance to clean up.” Yes, finally, Christmas would be real. Just like a Norman Rockwell painting. I welcomed the yuletide pageantry.

“Well, honey, that sounds really nice,” my mother said with deadpan aplomb. “But, you haven’t actually ever brought home a real tree, have you?”

Two years later, her words stung like the pine needles that pricked my fingers as I dragged to the curb the brittle corpse of my last real Christmas tree. Ever. Yes, Mom, let the gloating begin.

The reality is that real trees are tough, and mother knew best. They’re cumbersome. They shed, no matter how well you keep them watered. They’re difficult to dispose of. And, worst of all, real trees don’t come pre-lit.

As a child, I wasn’t privy to the upkeep of the holidays. Christmas was an innocent mystery—wrapped presents arrived under the tree, sparkly and alive—and somehow Santa always managed to sneak into our house without the aid of a chimney. Mom said he squeezed up the floor furnace. I found that debatable.

I fondly remember bubble lights that gurgled with holiday glee. The color wheel was technicolor wizardry. Each year, I couldn’t wait to set up the Christmas village in front of the tree. Sure, it was made of cardboard—hardly a ceramic collectible. But at age seven, a collectible is the cool rock you found on the playground. Not something store-bought.

Best of all, Mom and I were terrors with the tinsel. We wielded the silvery strands with wild eggnog fueled abandon until our 4-foot fake tree resembled Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” Spectacularly tacky yet memorable.

Later that Christmas Day, passed out in a bed of shredded wrapping and ribbon, I slept blissfully unaware of what the holidays also meant to my mother: cleanup duty. Down came the stockings hung with care. Boxed were the drugstore ornaments and plastic nativity set. As for the kitchen (aka, the war zone), it wasn’t anything a little Palmolive and a nip of bourbon couldn’t handle.

As a child, I couldn’t care less whether the tree was real, but my attitude changed as I became socially aware. As a sullen teenager, I resented not having a real Christmas tree because all my friends had one. As a college student, I found fake trees rather “bourgeois.” (Cue the black beret and bongos.) And, finally, as a homeowner, I swore I would only have real trees in my house. A fresh start, void of fake flock and hollow memories.

That lasted two years, after which I broke down and bought a top-of-the-line, pre-lit, 9-foot fake Christmas tree. It’s a work of synthetic art. And Mom and I now have an understanding. The holidays are magical for a child. But they can be stressful for an adult who is responsible for making that magic happen. Fake trees simply make life a little easier. A single mother can appreciate that. And now, so can her busy, workaholic son. My memories aren’t any less precious, pine or no pine.

Still, I sympathize with the purists who must have the real deal. I used to be a member of that Christmas club. At my last holiday party, a guest snuck up to my tree and ran the needles between his fingertips. “It’s fake,” he sneered to his friend. He caught my eye. I raised a cup of nog his way and mouthed, “thank you.” After all, Mom raised me right.

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