The Cavalier Daily
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Pining for real tree

I CAN STILL sense my first Christmas. I see the bright lights, feel the warmth of the crackling fire, taste the fresh-baked sugar cookies, and hear the carols. But most of all, I smell the beautiful fragrance of a newly cut, healthy, 100-percent genuine Douglass Fir.

Over the past 18 years, some things have changed. My brothers and I grew up, Mom's recipes changed, Dad's pattern of lights fluctuated, and the Christmases weren't always white.

Through all these changes, however, one thing always stayed the same. The smell of a fresh-cut evergreen -- permeating throughout the house, seeping in every crack and crevice, filling my lungs with every breath --always has been there. In four different states and two foreign countries, the only constant besides celebrating the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 has been the live Christmas tree.

Many people greatly underestimate the benefits of a live tree. They opt instead for the symmetrical, hole-less, dull-smelling things they have the nerve to call "Christmas trees". I'm sorry, but those fake, tacky, plastic shrubs you buy at WalMart just don't cut it. I must admit that my family purchased and set up a fake tree one year, but after the shrieks and protests from my brothers and me, we promptly scrapped it and returned to the real thing, thus avoiding what quite possibly could have been the worst Christmas of all time.

The main problem with fake trees is just that. They're fake. Jesus wasn't born in a plastic manger surrounded by puppet animals. He was born in a carefully carved wooden manger. Those were real animals in there with him, stable smells and all. And you can bet there were real trees outside the stable.

Another problem comes from having to assemble fake trees. My ideal Christmas doesn't include sticking plastic branches into a metal pole, then bending them into a shape perfect for eliciting "oohs" and "ahhs" from guests.

My family doesn't take our tree out of a box marked "assembly required." We take them out of forests marked "no trespassing." OK, so we haven't really ever cut down a tree illegally, but we do practice the ritual of driving into the middle of nowhere and searching for the perfect Almond Family Christmas Tree.

The perfect tree doesn't have to be 10 feet tall or symmetrical. It doesn't have to have evenly spaced branches sturdy enough to hang those clunky ornaments I made in grade school. All it needs is an evergreen scent, wood that gives you splinters when you set it up, and sap that stains your clothes. It doesn't matter if it drops needles all over the carpet -- they leave a fresh smell long after the tree has gone on to a better place.

As in many families, decorating the tree is one of our favorite traditions of the Christmas season. Decorating a real tree is a skill that takes years to perfect. I am confident that I can decorate any lopsided or patchy tree and make it look better than even the most professionally crafted fake out there. I will not reveal all of my family's heavily guarded secrets, but I will drop a few hints.

First, areas of a tree that may have gaps easily can be fixed by strategically hanging the heaviest ornaments so that they pull the branches down over the hole. Such ornaments include those delicate glass angels your mom won't let you touch or anything you made in wood shop. Also, there is the possibility that your tree may be barren in its lower quarter, i.e., there is a lot of open space between the floor and the start of the branches. To deal with this problem simply ask for large presents such as TVs and bicycles, and wrap your dad's necktie in a refrigerator box.

Once decorated, the tree emits the most beautiful scent for months. I sometimes sniff the branches just to get my daily evergreen fix. Last year I even dumped excess needles into my trunk so my car would smell great the rest of the year. If you still absolutely refuse to get a real tree, at least buy a wreath -- or 10 -- made of pine needles. This will at least make up for the lack of scent coming from that plastic thing in the corner.

I guarantee tragedies won't occur. There will be no squirrel attacks like in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Unless you forget to water it, there will be no fires. Granted, we have had some unique experiences with our real trees over the years. From premature deaths to last year's tree falling on me while I was watering it (I have pictures), the trees haven't been perfect. But they have been beautiful. And real. And prime factors in making Christmas my favorite holiday.

Man, I can't wait to get home.

(Brandon Almond's column usually appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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