TCS Daily

Oh Techno Tree, Oh Techno Tree...

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - December 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Well, we did it.

We bought an artificial Christmas tree.

First one for us.

Florida. That's how we justified it.

We are celebrating the Christmas season at our condo in Florida. We didn't lug all the lights and boxes of ornaments down from Pennsylvania and, well, we were in this store and the tree was on display, all lit up, and it looked very good.

And it was half price.

The thing is "pre-lit." You take it out of the box and the lights are already on it. So my least favorite part of trimming a tree was taken care of.

The thing is made in China, of course. In fact, there was a story in the Wall Street Journal about the family business in Shenzhen that came up with this particular type of tree, which is very realistic. Part of the secret, believe it or not, is good old polyvinyl-chloride, which is shredded in a particular way and wrapped around wire branches to look like real pine needles.

It's a pretty good job, too. Several people have mistaken our tree for a real one.

It sold me.

And that's a big sell. Just to give you an idea about me and real trees...

When I was a kid, in Rector, Pa., the family would gather at our house on Christmas Eve. After a big dinner it was time to go get the tree. We boys were allowed to tag along with the men as they trudged out into the snow with flashlights, an axe and a saw.

We would walk out into the woods on the back of our property. It was usually bitter cold but I was always so excited I hardly noticed. I still remember pushing my feet, clad in four buckle "arctics," through the powdery snow and watching the flashlights up ahead of me make jittering white shafts of glittering snowflakes as we walked through the woods.

Finally we'd stop. The shafts of light would rise and fall, gauging carefully a certain pine tree. My Uncle George would brush the branches with his gloved hand, sending clouds of snow into the night air. "Whaddya think?" He'd say. His brother, Robert, and brother-in-law, Slim would grunt their approval.

My older brother, Richard, would do the honors, crawling underneath with the axe and chopping off a few lower branches. Then he'd lay into the trunk, expert chops, angled and deep; four or five were all that it needed. George would saw the bottom off flat.

Then we'd drag the tree through the snow back to the house, up on the front porch and through the front door into the living room. We had a hefty homemade stand (a section of pipe bolted to two crossed oak boards) in which the tree was carefully placed and shimmed until it stood straight and solid.

We needed a sturdy tree because the lights we had were large and the strands became heavy. Slowly the ritual unfolded. If one light was burnt out the rest of the strand would not light. My uncles, George or Slim or Robert, would fiddle endlessly with the big orange, blue, green, red and yellow bulbs while my Mom and Aunt Inez would offer some aesthetic help, nudging a bulb here and there, moving a blue one away from another blue one. Finally, the tree, its needles smelling gloriously of the woods, was all alight.

The array of ornaments my mother and grandmother had amassed was large. Throughout the evening we attached these ornate glass and tin decorations, ate and drank, and listened to the Christmas music wafting from the old Philco in the corner.

Then, before my twin brother and I had to head upstairs to bed, we'd turn out all the lights except the tree and just savor the warm, glowing beauty of it.

It took me years to get out of the habit of putting up the tree on Christmas Eve and no sooner. My family finally talked me out of it, and we did enjoy having the tree glowing in the house for the week before Christmas. But it was always a real tree.

So now, another milestone. After 62 real ones, a fake one.

Okay, not fake, "artificial." After all, there is considerable artifice in this tree.

That's because the Chinese at this company, called Boto, really get into the thing. They actually have a Christmas tree lab! And technicians in white lab coats are in there assembling these trees and decorating them and subjecting them to abuse and evaluating them aesthetically.

Lab coats!

The company (which incidentally is now majority owned by an American firm) makes 400 different types of artificial Christmas trees and employs 8000 people.

They ship trees all over the world. Last year they shipped more than a billion dollars worth. You see them in Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart and lots of other stores.

And as proof that markets work, they found me and my wife, staring up at one of their masterpieces and making our way to the cash register.

By chance my old pal, Bill, back in Washington, bought his first artificial one this year, too. Turns out, neither of us went the whole magilla -- you can buy ones that are treated to actually smell like pine.

But by golly, once our trees were all decked out with lights and ornaments and garlands and candy canes, and our families were gathered around them there was that same feeling of happiness and warmth and the Christ child's spirit that we've always known and that those guys in the lab coats couldn't quantify on a thousand clipboards. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


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