Trimming the Tree

It isn’t really Christmas without a tree.

When I was growing up, that one thing said it was Christmas more than any other. I would be primed in advance by television and carol-singing at school, but these were just the prelude. Christmas itself began one sunny evening after school in the week leading up to the big day, when Dad would wave my brother and me into the back of the Land Rover and drive us down the road to the local tip. There, down an overgrown track beside piles of rusting car-bodies, down almost to the Huon River itself, was a stand of perfect Christmas pines baking under the southern sun. Every year Dad would get his Stihl chainsaw out of the back of the Landy and saw off a branch to be our tree.

On the drive home the Land Rover would fill with the smell of pine needles and fat blowflies from the tip. We would wind down the windows and watch the blowies zip out into the wind.

Back at home, we would carry the tree through the back porch and hallway, past the cat box, through the kitchen and into the dining room. Mum would fill a bucket with bricks and water, and we would stand the tree in it in front of the empty fireplace. We’d tie a rope around the tree and onto the mantelpiece to hold it straight. Mum would bring out the cardboard box of tinsel and Christmas balls and we would decorate it, cursing every year the balls with the flimsy loops of string that would always fall off its branches.

It needed all of us to get our trees into place, because they were always big. Our house was an old one with high ceilings, and the room needed a big hunk of pine to fill it up. The biggest of all wasn’t from the tip, though. That one came years later.

Our house had a long driveway with a hedge alongside it. This wasn’t any old hedge: it was planted sometime around the Second World War, and the genius responsible had decided to plant a row of pines. Big pines. Macrocarpa pines. By the time we moved there in the early 1970s, they had all joined up into one long wall of green, 80m long, 4m across, and 4m high. As kids, my brother and I would climb through a gap near the ground and clamber around in the tangled trunks and branches in near-darkness. Our own enchanted forest.

Keeping the hedge trimmed was a major headache, and although Mum and Dad were able to keep the sides under control (though over the years it encroached more and more on the driveway), the top grew taller and taller, until by the late 1980s it passed eight metres or 25 feet. Dad would glare at it and say, “That hedge is going to make me leave this place.”

That’s when I decided something would have to be done, and that I might as well be the one to do it. Starting one winter I spent most of my weekends on top of the hedge with a chainsaw, sawing through branches 10 or 15cm thick and tossing whole trees over the side into our driveway or the neighbours’. I had to watch my footing; a few times I fell through the branches into the darkness, which was a lot less fun as a twenty-year-old than it was at five. I had branches twice my size fall on me, and a few near misses with the chainsaw. But over the next six months I advanced up the length of the hedge, chopping it back to a manageable height.

We made dozens of trips to the tip, carting trailer-loads of pine trees. As Christmas approached there was no question of going to the tip for our tree—we had an infinite supply right outside. I singled out one perfect branch and left it standing while I kept chopping my way up the drive; and a few days before Christmas put on my gumboots, climbed up the ladder onto the hedge, and cut it down.

It was the biggest tree we ever had. Its tip touched the twelve foot ceiling and bent over slightly; its branches spread the width of our dining room, over the telly and the stereo. It took every bauble and bit of tinsel we had to dress it properly. It gave a whole new meaning to “trimming the tree”.

That was a Christmas.

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