Christmas Trees and Parties

There isn’t a fresh, real Christmas tree in any lot in this city. They’re all gone, most of them weeks ago, at prices that would make even most unscrupulous ticket scalper blush. We learned this last week, when even the trees that Charlie Brown passed up were going for $150, and we were left with three options: Go without a tree (which, really, not an option, but one has to state it for purely mathematical correctness), an artificial tree (which, really, also not an option as no-one’s come up with a ethically-sourced, all natural, vegan-friendly articifial tree), or cut down your own.

Now, thankfully, we live in an area of the world where a) there are lots of trees, and b) near Crown land where you’re actually permitted to go in there and, yes, cut down a tree. You need a permit, of course, it’s not a free-for-all, but it’s not too big a deal (it’s online, takes a few minutes, and currently costs nothing because the Alberta Government took away the $5 permit fee and turned it into a $95 “pass” for the Kananaskis region) … all it really takes is time.

I think I had more of a challenge getting the kids to finish eating breakfast and get changed. Though, we did luck out in that the weather was much warmer than yesterday – a paltry -3C vs. the -18C (feels like -27C) the day before.

This is not the first time we’ve cut down our own tree. We’ve done it for the last three(?) years, going out into the Elbow River area just west of Bragg Creek, diving into the forest, sawing down a tree that’ll fit under the ceiling, and heading home. The tricky part has been the kind of tree. Instead of a nice, bushy fir, you get what we have growing out in the wild: Lodgepole Pine, White Spruce, Black Spruce, or if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a Balsam Fir. But most likely, you’ll find Jack Pine, which seems like someone took a nice, full conifer and edited about half of it away.

Jack Pine has been our tree for years, mostly because it fits the bill: under 2.5 metres tall. Last years’ tree was even hilariously distorted (bent trunk), which seemed weirdly fitting for us in that moment. Most of the other “more ideal” trees are harder to find, largely as they’ve been already cut down at smaller sizes. But, in all fairness, where Jack Pines lack in bushiness, they make up for available ornament space, which certainly makes up for the lack of green.

This year, we tried our hand out in the Sibbald Creek area, due west of the city, a drive of about 25 minutes. We were not the only ones who had waited so long to get a tree, as several cars and trucks passed us on the way in, burdened with their trees. Not too far into the TM66 zone (the permitted cutting area), we found a nice area that didn’t look too abused (ie. no footprints diving into the woods), grabbed a hand saw, and in we went.

There were some trees visible from the road, but as we neared them, they seemed very vertical, without much width. Great for a loft apartment, perhaps, but our new home desired something larger. After a while of hunting around nearer to the road, we ventured a bit further into the forest, looking for a clearing where smaller trees might grow.

Near the banks of a recently-frozen creek, we found our subject. But like all the other trees around us, it was covered in thick snow. Monkey gave it a good shove with her boot, sending a cascade of while all around her (I might have totally predicted this, and also totally neglected to tell her that it would happen). And while it’s Jack Pine-ness came to light pretty quickly, it still satisfied all of us enough to bring it down. And, I will add, far faster than I have in previous years, despite the trunk’s additional girth. (Yes, size does matter!)

The hard part was returning with the tree. Dragging it wasn’t really an option as there were lots of shrubs and other trees that would break off branches. But this is where Jack Pine has a significant advantage over other trees – it’s far, far easier to carry. And I had to – overhead – especially through the dense bushes (now reduced to branches) nearing the road, where I had to double back because I simply couldn’t get through. We lost at least two branches along the way despite the efforts.

Holding to one of our more unexpected new traditions, we stopped for A&W on the way home, which was much appreciated after all the hiking around in the woods. The tree stand was brought out, and we found very quickly that while our ceiling is much higher than our old house, the tree didn’t fit under it. As our living room/dining room ceiling is peaked, we backed the tree up until it mostly fit, then lopped about 8 inches off the top (mostly so the angel would fit).

As we’d already lost so much tree time, we set to decorating almost immediately, dragging out the green Christmas bin (containing all the accoutrements for the tree), and our three-step stool (first time it’s been needed for this task) and got to work.

First thing we learned is that we need new tree lights. We’ve had the existing strands since about the time Alex and I were married (16 years, give or take a year). They “work”, but the blue lights are pretty much done and barely light up anymore. The orange and red lights work fine, but after all these years, we’re thinking we want white. Boxing Day sales, maybe.

The other thing we had to do was brace the tree in the stand. For reasons I couldn’t quite figure out, it kept wanting to tilt in the stand, so much so that at one point, Choo Choo even “caught” the tree as it started to fall over. An anchor was put in the wall and the tree strung to it, just to keep it vertical-ish.

Decorating took not much time after, as ornaments spanning 50 years of our lives (some predate me) were lifted and hooked into prominent positions, showing easily through the Jack Pine’s branches. Then came the traditional ornamental banner, which is increasingly Monkey and Choo Choo fighting over individual ornaments (who gets to hang what and on which branch and how dare you I was going to put my ornament there you jerk go find another branch!)

2021 Christmas Tree, Strathcona Park, Calgary, Alberta, 18 December 2021

The hard part was the angel. In many, many years past, it was one of the kids, held aloft with reverence, as they plopped the cardboard, plastic, and wired-gauze topper in place. Alex joked that I should be doing the same this year, and while both girls are within gasps of Alex’s size, even if they stood on my shoulders, they still wouldn’t be tall enough to reach the top of the tree. It was barely achieved with some careful reaching, and bending the top over just far enough to half-tip, half-throw the ornament on top.

Tree done, it was time for a party.

I started with Venture Park at the end of October, not really knowing how this calendar year was going to close out. I was working in my basement, just as I had for the year and a half before, thinking I might not actually meet these people for quite some time to come. But returning to the office some weeks ago started putting faces to names, and really started waning some of the built-up COVID hesitations. So much so that the company leadership decided to throw a real, in-person Holiday party.

So I drew out The Shirt (those of you who have survived it know of what I speak), found a pair of non-denim pants that fit, cleaned up from the hiking and tree decorating, and went down to the Hotel Arts for a little soiree. Alex was to attend with me, however waking up with a nasty illness nixed that desire, though she was kind enough to drive me there.

The company had also opted, at Arlene’s behest, so I understand, to have some rapid COVID testing done, so we could fest with a higher degree of confidence that we were not going to become a spreader event. Given the Omicron rates (which have taken out the Calgary Flames almost in its entirety), it was a smart move. And while the rapid test accuracy isn’t as good as the PCR tests, they’re still better than just proof of double-vaccination. And not nearly as rough as the PCR tests, as the rapid tests require only a swabbing in the nostril, instead of swab half-way into your skull.

We were in a fairly sizeable room next to Raw Bar, across from the (covered) swimming pool. I was relatively early arriving, with about a dozen or so in presence. As with every event I’ve ever attended, the first few get the conversation going with a beverage in hand, trying to stay away from work conversation. As more and more arrived, the noise level increased, to the point where I knew that, had Alex come, she’d likely have been having difficulty being able to speak loudly enough. (To that point, I’m a bit hoarse today.)

Dinner was a lovely buffet of salad, vegetables, salmon, and gnocci. Amazingly, I didn’t go for seconds, mostly as my tablemates’ conversation was far more rivetting than stuffing my face a second time. (That, and I’m still losing COVID weight, so bingeing didn’t seem a wise idea.)

We were all given raffle tickets upon arriving. I was very tempted to merely toss mine away, as I never win raffles. Well, almost never. And it was that “almost” that kept me loosely hoping that maybe something might wing my way. But no, my number went uncalled … though my newest team member, Mark – chanting “1 week in!” as he went up – turned out luckier than I.

The DJ started not long afterwards, and the sound level tripled. It was officially a party. And I soon realized that I was likely the second oldest in the room, after long-timer Marie.

I still remember my first corporate Holiday party in 1997 when I worked in Toronto. It seemed a bit strange to have a dedicated party with people I generally deemed as friends moreso than coworkers. And while I wasn’t the youngest in the place, I was definitely in the lower end of the range. Successive companies over the years to come, I was usually in the lower third.

And then it started to change, without me even realizing it. I stopped being in the lower ages at Critical Mass; I was one of the older folks. Not at the top of the range, but certainly well into the top quarter. In Costa Rica, I might have lied to myself that I was still younger than some, despite being one of the oldest. But at Venture Park, I think I can count on three fingers the folks who are older than me. Thankfully, though, I don’t feel the age … except through drink. It’s the advantage of many years previous that tells me to ensure hydration and avoid The Morning After feeling … though several of my new comrades are, no doubt, going to be having a rough start.

I ducked out later than I had thought I would leave, passing a few smoking outside, jumping into a taxi and setting course for home. As the cab drove through downtown, it dawned on me how long it had been since my last taxi ride, which could have been as long as my last time in New Orleans in 2016. Over five years. And as the car sped by sights familiar, I longed again to travel, to see other parts of the world I’ve only glimpsed at through pictures over the last two years while trying to keep my COVID-restrained sanity. And wondering when we might travel again, safely, without the delays.