The tree should never have been planted there – half-way between the front porch and the street sidewalk.  Its limbs and sharp edged leaves brushed you as you walked the path.  That is, before we re-built the front steps to repair termite damage.  Then we re-routed the new stone path in a curve around the tree.  But still, as you stand on the porch, the tree is in your face, and the view across the street is blocked.  But eventually I got used to it.

 This English holly tree was there when I moved here in 1961, nearly thirty feet high with a pyramidal shape, like a Christmas tree.  Each year before Christmas I trim the branches, making sure to get lots of berries.  I distribute branches around the neighborhood, other friends, and any one else who wants them.  They are not universally welcomed, but are easily disposed of if found of no use.

My procedure doesn’t vary.  About two weeks before Christmas I look for fair weather.  I sometimes worry when the window doesn’t open soon enough, but it will happen.  With a glove on my left hand and clippers in my right, I walk around the tree removing protruding branches, and attempting to cut long ones with berries, while shaping the tree. Then I get out the six foot step ladder and rotate around the tree at a higher level.  Next, comes the eight foot ladder, and then the twenty-eight foot aluminum extension ladder.  The eight-footer and the extension ladder are stored in the ceiling of the garage.  As the years progress, removing the ladders from the garage becomes the hardest part of the job, and I sometimes call to Cari, if she’s home, to get me out of trouble.

People ask me how I dare to go up on the extension ladder as it leans against the tree.  Sometimes I just pass it off with bravado, but the truth is – the ladder locks into the branches of the tree, and I feel perfectly safe.  As the years pass, though, the tree grows, and the twenty eight feet isn’t enough to reach the top, so about every ten years I cut some six feet off the top.

The  next step is to string the lights on the tree.  From the attic I bring down six twenty- five foot strings of 9-1/4 bulbs.  I lay each string on the lawn and test for bad bulbs, then starting at the top; I rotate the strings around the tree, trying to get some symmetry in the design.  In both the limb trimming, and the spreading of the lights, I get my year’s worth of exercise.  Up and down, move the ladder, then up and down again.  Then, occasionally, I back off to view my work.  I hook up the lights to the front porch electrical outlet and each evening ‘till late in January the tree welcomes the neighborhood. Then, the process of de-stringing the tree, which, fortunately, is a bit easier.

And now, I’m glad the tree was planted there, but why all this labor?  We live on a dead-end street, with a path at the end that leads to the Burlingame high school.  There is considerable foot traffic during the day, but at night, the darkened path discourages traffic, so only my neighbors (and ourselves) enjoy the lighted tree.

But tradition is strong, and just as long

as I have the will, I’ll string along!

There have been times when neighbors helped.  Many want to hold the ladder, and I have stopped protesting, but few want to climb.  Children have helped distribute the holly, and sometimes helped put the cuttings in the trash barrels.  On my ninetieth birthday a good neighbor gave me a present of having a professional do the job, but this year I did it alone.  Maybe on my one-hundreth? 

George W. Parker

February 2010

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