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Bob Maginnis 12/28/00

December 27, 2000

If a tree falls in the living room...



It's been eight years since the last Maginnis Christmas tree flopped over on the living room rug.

It was the dog's doing back then. Just eight months old, we kept him in the kitchen, where he slept in a kennel cage to teach him not to do his business in the house.

But on Christmas Day, we were invited away, and we took pity on him, giving him the run of the kitchen and the family room while we were gone.

But someone left the hall door open and when we returned, the tree was on its side, with all the ornaments and strings of lights piled beside it. None were broken, because he'd apparently removed each one in a careful search for something to eat or chew. Finding nothing that fit the bill, he decided not to destroy anything.

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This year we got a late start on Christmas decorating. My oldest son, who can spend up to an hour searching a lot for the perfect tree, was tied up at college with finals, so by the time he went prospecting, the pickings were slim.

After four stops, he came home with a pine about seven feet tall and two feet across, shaped kind of like an artillery shell, only with branches. And the trunk was enormous, like the mast of a sailing ship. When it fell over the first time, it took two of us to lift it into the stand again.

The stand really was the problem. It came from a friend who said he'd developed an allergy to live trees, but I now suspect he just became allergic to picking them up when they fell. A round affair, it's kind of like a plastic bucket with screws at the top of the rim to hold the tree straight.

My dad never had problems like this. He had a wooden stand, painted green with adjustable legs that were attached to the tree with as many nails as you thought were necessary. The trees he put up never tumbled over, but because his stand had no water reservoir, the needles began to fall off almost as soon it was up.

The second time our tree fell over, all the water spilled onto the rug, along with a copious quantity of needles, ornament hunks and shiny "icicles," which my wife likes, but which have been very difficult to find for the past few years.

As I hooked up the vacuum, my youngest son said, "Mom's going to want them back on the tree."

"I'm not sorting through all that junk," I said, determined to get the clean-up underway. I hit the switch, and in seconds, the air was filled with a shower of tiny silver bits, which meant I was either having a heavenly vision, or the vacuum bag was full and the machine was shredding the icicles instead of sucking them up.

I installed a new bag, cleaned up what I could and gave my oldest son the bad news, even drawing him a diagram of how the tree could be braced up. No problem, he said.

The next day when I came home, the tree was upright again, ready to greet our Christmas Eve guests. My son had even fixed the tree-top ornament broken in a previous fall. I busied myself breaking up the ice on the driveway so our guests wouldn't slide into each other's cars on the way into the house.

When I came in, the Redskins game was on and all the choice seats were taken. I sat in a small straight-backed chair and, lulled by the never-ending drone of the announcers - did John Madden ever have an unexpressed thought? - began to doze off. I awoke on the way to the floor, thankful I hadn't fallen asleep atop a ladder.

The guests began to arrive at about 6 p.m. and I sat down next to the tree to join in the conversation. Then someone said, "Look out!"

The tree was slowly falling toward me, its descent slowed by the scraping of its stubby little branches against the back wall. I reached up to grab it, then called for my son to help prop up this errant evergreen. There was already a stack of wood under the stand big enough to start a small campfire, but after rearranging it, the best he could do was lean the treetop against the wall and secure the base to keep it from sliding into the middle of the room.

For the rest of the night, we teased each other about what had happened. When my son sat next to the tree I asked him if he wanted a hard hat for protection and he asked me if I was planning to get a seat belt for my chair so I wouldn't fall out of it again.

Perhaps ashamed of its previous misbehavior, the tree didn't move for the rest of the night and the next morning. Then our overnight guests left and my wife, who normally holds onto that Christmas feeling like a child clutching a favorite blanket, announced that she wanted the ornaments off the tree and the tree out the door.

"I'd like to burn it up with gasoline," said my son. He wrestled the bullet-shaped bush out the door and threw it off the front porch into the snow.

It was still there when I left for work Tuesday, in the middle of the walk, with the stand still on. It reminded me of those old Hollywood westerns where everybody rides off into the sunset, leaving the bad guy lying in the dirt with his boots on. My wife and I discussed getting an artificial tree, but decided that it would be like having a stuffed animal instead of a real dog. Artificial anythings don't make a mess on the rug, but they're seldom as interesting as the real thing.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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