The Perfect Tree

How much effort to do you put into selecting your Christmas tree?

For several years, a friend has shared a story of her annual tradition of driving up into the mountains near her town, to select her tree; a day of hot chocolate and the smell of pine; of crisp days, shortened by daylight savings, and splattered with snow flurries; accompanied by photos of her family posed in front of the tree.

This year she invited me to join them and I accepted without hesitation.

My own tree-shopping tradition usually goes something like this: often we don’t get a tree because, without children or obligations, we go to someone else’s house for the holidays. When we are home, I tell my husband that I want a tree and he dismisses the idea out of hand: they’re too expensive; we’re contributing to global warming by supporting a tradition that cuts down trees; they’re messy; the cat will knock it down. I stick to my guns – I want a tree – until, the week before Christmas, he finally capitulates and tells me that I can spend $20 on a tree. As if you can find a tree for that amount in Manhattan. I haunt the Canadian gypsies on the streets around the tunnel or sometimes in the village, though how I’d get a tree home from the village, I don’t know. Finally, I find a tree for $60, a tiny little Charlie Brown of a tree, really just the top of some larger tree which didn’t make the grade. I bring it home and, as I set it up, my husband complains that it was too much money, that it’s lopsided and has a bare spot. He procrastinates decorating until, finally, I give up and decorate it alone; and then he complains that I did it without him. For a week, he says what a wonderful little tree it is, and takes pictures to send his family, and chases the cat away from it. Then, soon after Christmas, we pluck off the ornaments, wrap it in plastic, and place it out on the street on a tree pick-up day.

I wanted to experience a different kind of Christmas tree tradition. So I piled into my friend’s SUV with her family and rode up into the hills outside her town. When we arrived, an elf approached us, bundled in flannel and down, and asked what kind of tree we wanted. The fields were sorted by brand and size. My friend said definitively that her family liked the kind that was in the nearest field. The elf explained that there weren’t many trees left in that field, and they were mostly of the largest size; because of supply and demand, they were charging more for them, around $150 vs. $100 if we wanted to take the hay-wagon to the Blue Spruce field, where the selection was larger. My friend thanked her, grabbed a saw, and we headed off to the expensive field, cocoa in hand.

Almost immediately, we found a beautiful tree. Moving in and out to view it from every possible angle, needles were caressed to gauge dryness and branches gently bent down to inspect the interior for dead branches. The tree was mentally bookmarked for later and we moved downhill to inspect each of the other trees. Someone advocated for a larger tree. Someone else pointed out that, although the trees were the same species, they varied in color, some more blue-green, some more yellow-green – did the yellow-green mean that they were drier? The cold wind whipped across the field and we stumbled across stumps where trees had been cut down last year, the year before.  The remaining trees huddled in corners of the field, along the fence line, at the bottom of the hill, in the upper corner.

Tree after tree was rejected for imperfection: this one wasn’t tall enough; that one, not full enough; the next was too dry, you could see yellow needles on the interior; oof, look at the hole on one side of that one. The one over there was bent. Finally, a tree was selected, selfies taken, the tree cut down and dragged out of the field to be gift-wrapped by the tree elves, while my friend went inside the shop to select (yet another) stand and pay for her tree. For some reason they charged her much less than they had originally threatened, even though the tree was much larger than she had originally planned. As always, things worked perfectly out for my friend.

While we waited for the elves to carry the tree to the SUV and tie it on under supervision of her husband, she asked what kind of tree I usually bought. Without thinking, I replied, Blue Spruce. I like the color and the neat orderliness of the tiers of branches.

Her face fell.

Oh, I like Blue Spruce, too, she said and I could see her FOMO kicking in.

I hastily reassured her that her selection was perfect, that it was beautiful and full, taller than any tree I had ever seen in anyone’s house: she had found The Perfect Tree.

But she wasn’t convinced. Maybe we should have taken the hay-wagon to the other field. Maybe we should have held out for The Truly Perfect Tree.

How often do we do this to ourselves?

We have a wonderful experience selecting something that is ideal for ourselves, and then we second guess ourselves to death. We wonder if we should have gone for something completely different, because that is what someone else likes. We worry that we have made a terrible mistake.

We do this when shopping for Christmas trees or holiday gifts. We do this when picking out houses and cars and wedding dresses and – god forgive us – spouses. We do this at parent-teacher conferences, when selecting activities for our kids.

We do it when planning holiday feasts and grocery shopping. We do it when selecting restaurants to dine outdoors at with our friends. We do it when choosing vacations, flights, hotels, destinations.

When planning career moves, we agonize over staying and going, over what is our true calling, our true path, and can we get it with maybe a little grander title, a higher salary, a little more vacation time, WFH privileges, nicer coworkers.

We invest a lot of time selecting the perfect thing and then second guess it the moment that we see someone else advertise their selection on social media or in a photo of the perfect tree-shopping trip.

How much happier would we be if we could just decide on something and then like what we’ve decided on and stop looking around. If we could appreciate that my friend’s Christmas tree – which, it turned out, almost grazed the ceiling of her living room and, in fact, takes up so much living room floor space that the fireplace is entirely inaccessible – is the right selection for her.

And my tiny Charlie Brown tree, which takes up a similar amount of space in my tiny little New York apartment, is exactly right for me.

And that’s okay.

That’s what makes the world interesting: that my perfect tree is different than your perfect tree.

If we all lived the same life, a life that is Instagram perfect in every way, life would be boring.

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