Now here is a thoughtful gentleman of College Park with a formula to keep the Christmas tree fresh, but it sounds very like a formula for a bomb, and even Mr. G.K., who sends it, says he has not yet tried it. I pass it along as a Sign of These Times, especially since I have somewhat neglected high tech in the columns of recent weeks.
Take two gallons of hot water and slosh around a pint of clear, pale corn syrup, two teaspoons of borax, two ounces of household bleach, the kind that smells like YMCA swimming pools, and two good pinches of Epsom salts.
"The hot water," he points out, "is solvent for all succeeding chemicals in order to achieve the most damage and promote rust. The syrup makes a sticky mess and attracts flies. The borax discolors paint on the tree stand and permanently stains all valuable gifts, while the bleach will bleach holes in the carpet and eat out the rivets holding the tree stand together. The Epsom salts forms an impenetrable crust on the inside of the tree stand and makes the cat throw up."
With so many fringe benefits one is tempted. Though, as I say, if the cat drinks the bleach and borax, I doubt you have to worry about the Epsom salts.
Every year I mutter about the lack of red cedars for sale as Christmas trees. That is our native juniper (Juniperus virginiana), the one in pastures all along the road to Leesburg.
Now my poor mother did not grow up in cedar country and said the smell reminded her of cats. She felt the same way about the smell of boxwood. So when I was a kid we always had balsam firs or spruces from the far north with their clean sweet smell.
But our neighbors all had cedars. Aunt Marie next door had real candles on her tree, and we expected her family to go up in smoke by St. Stephen's Day every year, but a great square post that interrupted the flight of the stairs had a cross carved on it, and we thought maybe that protected them or something. She was from New Orleans. Later on, when it became hard to find the right candles (and of course the fire marshal yammered and roared from Thanksgiving on about the sin of candle-lit trees), she gave way and went to those new-fangled electric Christmas tree lights.
Our 1913 house had all manner of modern gadgets such as wall sockets and electric iceboxes -- the Frigidaire people sent a man down a few years ago to see about putting our icebox in some icebox museum and said it was a marvelous specimen, all oak, and a tribute to Frigidaire that it still worked fine 45 years later, but they already had one like it.
My mother, however, got rid of the perfectly good thing and got one with a freezer, and after that we never had room for two watermelons.
But both my parents liked new cars, and I believe got the first cactus needles in town (for the Caruso records, you idiot) and the first giant radio in the neighborhood. Yet this fascination with new technology always fought with my mother's waste-not-want-not philosophy, resulting in our retaining high-tech objects for some time after they were no longer on the cutting edge of American know-how. The 45-year-old electric icebox, for example.
Aunt Marie next door may have had the last wood-burning cookstove in captivity, but finally (when you couldn't get stove wood, I guess) surrendered and bought a gas stove that looked exactly like the old wood stove, in black iron with ovens piled up to the ceiling and other features that made sense only because they were once useful in a wood stove.
Aunt Marie's family always came over to admire our high-tech Christmas lights. These were mainly made in Austria and were shaped like little houses and bunches of grapes and Santa Clauses and canaries. The canary-shaped lights lasted well into the 1970s, like the clear light bulbs hanging down in the garage (possibly made by hand by Mr. Edison, but decade after decade they kept burning).
But Aunt Marie's family had no truck with all that. They went along with the modern world to the point of making the fire marshal happy and getting tree lights shaped like candle flames, but beyond that, to hell with progress.
We spent the entire holiday season screwing and unscrewing lights on the tree, whereas the Triggs, with their candle-flame bulbs, spent only half the holiday tending to theirs. In those days the lights were so fiercely hot you could burn a hole in your hand if you touched them, and the heat released the oils of the tree needles, so you could tell instantly whether there was a cedar or a fir or a spruce or a pine in the house. Nobody ever had a pine, and I never heard of such a thing till I came up here.
What a relief to notice that Washington is cedar country. I took care to marry a woman who likes cedar Christmas trees, of course, and for a few years up here we could find one. But in recent years, no. And I will not go out and cut one off a farmer's pasture at Leesburg, even though I know they are not really farmers and all have $427,000-a-year incomes. So I do without.
But back to this gluck you mix up to keep the tree fresh. It's bound to smell like a YMCA pool, isn't it? And the smell of the tree is at least half the point of having one, isn't it?
Modern lights are cool, not hot, so the oils of the tree are not airborne, as formerly. But what difference does it make? If it doesn't smell like cedar (and these new-fangled fir, spruce, pine trees don't) then who cares if it smells at all?
Last year I got some burlap and a bale of cedar shavings and personally sewed a bed for the terrier, the one that sleeps in the rocking chair and rocks when he wakes up off and on in the night. We say his cedar bed keeps the upholstery clean, but of course the real reason is it makes Max smell fine. (I have learned subsequently that my careful sewing came apart the middle of last January, and my wife did it all over on the sewing machine. They have machines for everything nowadays, and in some cases, as in dog beds, the machines surpass even quality handwork.)
But the main reason I bought the bale of cedar chips was I thought, correctly, there would be a lot left over from making Max's bed, and there is. I keep the slightly diminished bale in my closet, where it is somewhat inconvenient since the bottom of the suits get hung up on the top of the bale.
Never mind. At night I open the closet door, right by my bed, and smell the cedar chips. And this year I do not mourn the lack of a cedar Christmas tree. I just get out a shirt and there it is Christmas. I pass the syrup-bleach formula along to those who don't even know what Christmas should smell like anyway.