Source: Joseph Bottum
Flocking. No one outside the millinery trade—ladies' haberdashery—should ever have occasion to use the word, but there it is: a category of artificial Christmas trees. You can get your tree flocked, or unflocked. Made of green nylon, like AstroTurf in the Astrodome, or made of metal, like pink aluminum siding on a split-level suburban house somewhere near Fort Lauderdale. Prelit with twinkling LED lights, or plain, for the do-it-yourselfers among us: the hardy, handy people who prefer putting up their own authentic Christmas lights on their synthetic trees.
Of course, the results can be quite beautiful, with a regularity and soft glow that . . . No, I just can't do it. Can't contemplate artificial Christmas trees without a shiver of despair for civilization and my own sanity. Every year, out here in the Black Hills, my family and I would make a donation to the Forest Service and get our bright orange tree-harvesting tag—then drive up to the edge of the woods. We'd hike on from there, up to our traditional meadow, and begin looking for the tree, the one tree, that was calling out to us that particular season. The National Forests ban chainsaws, but a little work with an axe, some back and forth with a bow saw, and we'd be ready to go.
Or almost ready to go. The tree needed its limbs tied up, so they wouldn't tear off as we hauled it back through the forest to the car. Then we'd have to tie it to the roof with blankets to keep the paint from getting scratched. And then the long, slow, careful drive down the snowy dirt roads back to town. And then the getting of it into the house, always scraping the paint on the door jambs.
All that was left, at that point, was setting it up in the tree stand, my wife and I holding it up while my daughter crawled under the branches to tighten the bolts that were supposed to hold the tree in place. Except they rarely did, and the greatest moment of Yuletide anticipation came not on Christmas Day, opening presents, but a few weeks before, as we cautiously let go of the tree to see whether or not it was going to topple. The worst years were when the tree decided to wait till we had the ornaments on it before reenacting its timbery fall.
We'd have to leave the tree in the middle of the room for a day, standing in water to see how much it was going to open. But then we would maneuver it back into its niche between the bookshelves. And . . . those natural trees really were a lot of work, now that I think about it. Besides, they always gave us a rash and clogged up our sinuses. Those steadily growing allergies, worse every year, were what finally persuaded us to consider getting an artificial tree this year. Something that could hold all the ornaments and wouldn't make us sick.
So off we went, searching online and in the stores, to see what was available. This is how I discovered that, like most of us who were alive in the 1970s, artificial is still a dirty word. In my imagination, fake Christmas trees sprout on shag-carpet floors—backed by laminate wood paneling and framed by Naugahyde recliners. The artificialities have been around at least since the 1950s, but I always see them as distinctly 1970s things. Perhaps it's disco balls for you, but everything that was inauthentic, weird, and soul-denying about the era is represented for me by artificial trees.
The offerings we saw this year weren't doing much to bring doubters around. A 30-foot Flocked Tree with Warm White Lights runs $16,999 plus $800 shipping. A 15-foot Alaskan Pine Artificial Christmas Tree with Multi-LED Lights—featuring heavy white flocking on 2-inch-wide green pine needles—will cost you only $5,088.74. A 16-foot Bayberry Spruce Memory-Shape® Tree with Dual-Color® Lights, made of polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride—will set you back $4,554.99.
Cheaper alternatives exist, of course. Less expensive ones, too. And after a month of hunting we found a reasonably priced green unflocked lightless tree—that needed only about half an hour to set up. It took all our ornaments, sleigh bells, and lights. It didn't topple over. And it didn't give us allergic reactions.
It even looks pretty good: the exact height we needed, regular without being absurdly precise, and thick with branches all the way around. I feared I would start to hate the way I'd grown so accepting of the artificial stuff of the 1970s, but, no, the tree is a happy thing to have around. I just have to stop myself from climbing up to set a disco ball on top.