A Not-so-Bleak House

It’s a cloudy afternoon and “Peter Crowley,” as we’ll call him here, is walking through the mock forest of Douglas firs at the Delancey Street Christmas-tree lot on Glendale Boulevard. The 39-year-old, dressed in a black cashmere sweater and Levi’s, is a little amped up, most likely from too much caffeine and not enough food. “I said to my Colombian boyfriend, ‘Honey, would you want to get a tree?’ And, he’s like, ‘You know, I don’t really give a shit.’” Crowley delivers this last line in his best Ricky Ricardo voice. “Not too romantic, right?” he adds, and then turns and stops in his tracks.

 Illustration by Alie Ward


“I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this. The truth is, I feel obligated to buy a tree. I’m trying so hard to ignore the holiday. Because, of course, I think it’s crass and commercial and disgusting. But then I feel self-pity and get lonely, which is pathetic. It’s the kind of thing where you are really damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And, if you don’t — then it’s just bleak. I mean, what is this? December 14th? I haven’t bought a gift, I haven’t mailed a card, I haven’t received a card.”

He touches an 8-foot fir that’s leaning to one side. “Why is it that all the ones I like are bent?

Soon he’s walking again. The sounds of pine needles crunch underfoot.

“Listen, the whole thing causes me to examine my past Christmas dating history. Because I have a boyfriend for the holidays, which I haven’t had for years and years and years! I was driving over here and thinking, ‘This must be why I like to date Jews.’ It’s just: Chinese food, a bad movie, some complaining and some hot sex. Anyway, this year I don’t have a Jewish date for Christmas. So I’m gonna suck it up and plunk down some money on a tree that is basically already dead and nailed to a stick. Just so I don’t have to feel totally bad about myself.”

Why would you feel bad about yourself?

“’Cause I don’t want to be left out. I’m just some asshole who needs to go out and buy something so I can feel a little bit better.”

Are you being sarcastic?

“No. I am being serious. You purchase the illusion that you are part of the tradition.”

Do trees remind you of your childhood?

“Oh! That’s not a very nice thought. No. I just like the way they smell.”

A few hours later, Crowley is decorating his adorable 6-foot fir in his one-bedroom cabin up the hill. Gingerbread men, bendable gold-trimmed ribbon, wood ornaments, candy canes and chocolate cover the floor.

How do you feel about your tree?

“It’s short and fat. Like, I wouldn’t go out with that tree.”

He laughs and holds up a miniature wooden angel on a gold string.

“Look, how sweet is that?”

What did your boyfriend say when you told him you got a tree?

“‘Oh. Good.’ He’s somewhat indifferent to the whole notion. You know, he’s in grad school.” What do you think the tree symbolizes?

“I’m not sure. We should Google that. If I had to guess, it must have started out as a winter-solstice thing. It seems very pagan, doesn’t it?”

Crowley plugs in his single strand of white lights and looks down at them.

“I don’t think I have very many lights. What am I gonna do?”

Crowley leaves the room and returns with a Krishna night-light, which he momentarily contemplates putting at the top of the tree.

“See, I’m interested in appropriating traditions and assigning my own meaning to them. Sometimes it’s not about thinking how you don’t fit into some prescribed paradigm. It’s easy to imagine that everyone else is living this life that I am not living. But in reality, a lot of people probably feel left out at Christmas. What about people who are too poor to buy a gift? What are they supposed to do?”

Crowley tucks his lights into the tree, wrapping them from top to bottom.

“I mean, that’s what used to be a midlife crisis. Realizing that the symbols of religion are usually kinda bullshit. And then people freak out because they feel like their life has no meaning, because they bought into this whole idea. It’s like the curtain is lifted and they see through the hypocrisy. But rather than ignoring the symbols, why not just embrace them?”

Now he starts hanging gingerbread men in between the full branches.

“If you want to assign your own meaning, it can just be the winter solstice. You know, like the druids celebrating nature and the passage of time. I also think people do need more sleep this time of year. Something about the light and the latitude and hibernation. I notice people get more aggressive this time of year.”

He laughs and places a chocolate coin atop a flat branch.

“I like the idea of an edible tree. I know it’s cliché, but it is a good time to reflect and meditate on the end of the year and the new year. It’s a good time to get cozy.”

What do you want to experience this Christmas?

“Love and sugar,” he laughs again.

Stepping back to examine his tree, he smiles.

“I do feel better that I got that tree. It was getting pretty bleak there.”


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