The Tree stands packed with other trees, indistinguishable in the little felled forest that leans along the racks. The firs are all still bunched in the upright, uptight shipping pose needed for the tractor-trailer that dropped them off two days earlier, their limbs seized by twine in a severe pillar that belies their shaggy looseness.
Since the spring of 2003, its world had been the mountain, its life the unchanging rhythm of slow growth and summer prunings.
The Tree does have a shape and character of its own. But its uniqueness will remain theoretical until someone pulls it from the anonymous mass, shakes it free, examines it, knows it. And, finally, anoints it. “Honey? I think I found one.”
But for now, the Tree is just one of the 30 million that have been cut and shipped around the country as of this second Saturday in December. Some are already deep into their brief star turn as holiday icons, adorned and alight in living rooms and front halls, bank lobbies and town squares. Others, like the 400 or so in this lot beside Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill, are still waiting to bloom into the garish centerpiece of America’s defining cultural maelstrom, the year-end blizzard of sentimentality, commerce and botany.
All day, shoppers come in from Pennsylvania Avenue. At first glance, they are as indistinguishable as the trees they seek, a short spectrum of dark topcoats and fleece. But it takes only seconds for a tree seller to fit a tree buyer into one of the major categories.
“Usually, I can tell by the time they get to the first tree,” says Elizabeth Philbrick, the manager of Frager’s tree lot. “You’ve got your ...”
Newlyweds, who must gingerly reconcile his inviolate family tradition of jolly fat trees with her devotion since girlhood to ceiling scrapers. (Coming later that night, icicles vs. tinsel.)
The Junior Leaguer, who cares mostly about a just-so shape and branches capable of carrying all 12 of her Waterford crystal bells.
The Dad on a Mission, who stops on the way home and buys the tree closest to the cash register.
The Tree Rescuer, who looks for the bare patches and skimpy branches of a “Charlie Brown tree” to redeem with love and paper chains.
But mostly there are families. The kids who see picking a tree not as an errand but an adoption. Who fan out to find the tallest one, even if it means cutting three years of growth from the trunk. Who are berserk with anticipation for the domestic alchemy about to occur, when this creature of the cold woods is transformed into the ultimate totem of indoor warmth by the application of charms collected over generations.