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The Walther Family’s Christmas Staycation

The story of how a family found themselves unprepared for Christmas: a story about a lot of things, but mostly about water and trees.

Note: In the following paragraphs, I have substituted a certain Anglo-Saxon word of four letters and its numerous variants with the phrase “Santa Claus.”

On December 8, just after my wife had returned from homeschooling co-op, she opened my office door to let me know that there was water under the kitchen sink. “I hear some weird sounds in the basement, too.” Groaning slightly, I descended the stairs and found myself muttering that this must be my mother-in-law’s fault. (I cannot be the only American male to entertain what I refer to as the “Golden Bough theory of mothers-in-law,” viz., that her limitless ability to spot problems in our house actually causes them to appear.)

My first impression, upon finding water in the room where our neglected exercise equipment hides under an old blue tarp, was that the toilet downstairs needed to be resealed. Then I heard a noise like Old Faithful having a stroke and walked into the room where the pipe runs out to the sewer.

“Oh Santa Claus.”

I will spare the reader the details of what I saw in that dark place, which had once been the wine cellar of the family who built our home during the Jackson administration. Suffice it to say that I ran upstairs and grabbed my phone. The first three plumbers I tried did not answer; the fourth told me that he could stop by early next week, if that was convenient (I politely asked him whether he was out of his Santa Claus-ing mind); the fifth said that he did not “service” what he described as our “area,” until I begged and he promised to appear the following afternoon.

This is the story of how our family found ourselves unprepared for Christmas this year. It is a story about a lot of things, but mostly it is about water and trees.

All of this was, as I say, not only unexpected but highly inconvenient. Even before what we have already begun to refer to as “the shit times,” we had been treading water both literally and metaphorically chez Walther. I won’t bore you with the details, but you have to imagine that for a considerable portion of 2021, this column was the primary source of our family’s income, including when water burst through the ceiling of the toy room three days after the birth of our fourth child at the end of May. That was a fun bill to pay while my wife was on bed rest and our babysitter (whom we then paid $20 an hour) was just starting to come up with the latest in a series of increasingly inventive excuses for having to leave an hour early.

Since then, things had been looking up. When we tried to fence in our yard a few months ago, we learned that thanks to the activity of speculators, it would only cost twice as much as the down payment we made in 2017 to erect a wooden barrier between our three-year-old son and the road. When all the lights went out in my office a weeks ago for reasons I was initially unable to discover, it turned out that I’m not the world’s worst amateur electrician—it’s just that, silly me, I hadn’t been prepared for the presence of undisclosed ancient knob-and-tube wiring in the room that houses both my work desktop and the stereo system that is worth several times more than both of our vehicles put together. When I failed to buy our oldest a piano three weeks ago, it was only because after making the 45-minute drive we were told at the door that the six-year-old would be required to wear a mask in order to try out various instruments in the otherwise abandoned-looking warehouse in downtown Kalamazoo. (These people recognize who their real customer base is and stick to them. Upper-middle-class white liberals who don’t know who Otto Klemperer was: 1, former prole cultural aspiration: 0.)

But back to the shit times. When the plumber arrived, he told me that it would cost at least $3,000 to replace the line running to the main but that if I happened to know someone with an excavator lying around, it would only be half the price. I think he meant this to sound slightly contemptuous, but the joke was on him. I called my brother, who confirmed that we in fact had a Bobcat compact. He suggested that my wife and the kids stay with her mother for the weekend and in the meantime told me to call 8-1-1 and have all of our underground lines flagged.

I am afraid that here and elsewhere I will only be able to summarize what happened next. After I called 8-1-1, I had to wait three days for the lines to be flagged. When my brother arrived with the Bobcat, we discovered that the flagging job for the sewer line was only off by seven feet or so, which meant that we could have dug halfway to China without seeing the pipes, which turned out to be ancient and made of clay, with enormous red tree roots growing through them. The plumber then promptly missed his follow-up call, forcing us to find a replacement at the last minute. He suggested that I go down to city hall and apply for a sewer line replacement program funded by Uncle Sam in which our town is participating; it turned out that while I was eligible in addition to the $400, I had to pay a $12 fee to use my debit card (why is it that states and municipalities still pretend that it’s 1971 and they need to dig out their charge plates to make an etching?). The work was done, after a fashion, but the geniuses forgot to ask whether I wanted to replace the cracked pipe inside the basement before filling our front yard with sand. (It is now a semi-permanent mudpit.) This meant that by December 19 the line was already backing up again, forcing us to undergo a second round of excavation in 30-degree weather. Gaudia certaminis.

In the ensuing period, I was, among other things, confronted with an error made by the printer of the magazine of which I am editor which will probably cost us an enormous amount of revenue, called a mother Santa-Clauser and advocate of genocide by approximately 700,000 people on Twitter, invited on CNN for more of the same, only to be asked to reschedule twice; by the third time, when I was told that I would be appearing at 9:00 p.m. on Friday evening and again on Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m., I politely declined. That day the pope tried to cancel the old Latin Mass again. Oh, and in the meantime, my son decided that he is no longer potty-trained.

Which brings us to this week. On Tuesday morning, we went to the cathedral for confession. Afterward, we meant to stop at Costco to pick up a few things for Christmas lunch, which is usually very jolly and sparkling. On our way there, I stupidly suggested that we stop off at a restaurant that had fallen upon hard times, where we waited for half an hour before leaving without being served drinks, much less food. After this ordeal, the children were hungry, as you may well imagine. “Santa Claus it,” I said to my wife. “Time for Mickey D’s.”

Our intention was the drive-through, but when we arrived, I can barely describe the feelings of parental jubilation: Here, after more than 20 months, was an actual McDonald’s PlayLand, open and probably not cleaned since March 2020. So we went inside and my wife nursed the baby while the other children played and I watched a masked customer (the only person thus attired, including the staff) whine to the young black female manager about how he simply could not wait another two minutes for his latté while the machine was cleaned. As soon as he left, I heard her shout: “Aww hell no, I’m getting my SMOKE on.”

Thus fortified, we headed off for the nearby tree farm. (This would be the second one we had been to this week; the first, which we had tried on Friday afternoon, turned out to be closed for the season, despite what it said on its website.) When we pulled in, we looked around for signs of activity amid the rows of pine and spruce. Finally we called:

“Hello,” said a bored female voice.

I inquired whether I had reached the tree farm.

“Yes,” she said curtly.

“Wonderful. My family and I are outside and we were just wondering whether it would be possible to pick up a Christmas tree today.”

“We haven’t sold Christmas trees since two-thousand-fourteen,” she said, as if referring to some unspeakable and seemingly well-known tragedy that had occurred during the year in question. “We only do landscaping and orchard sales.”

After mentally speculating about what unknown trauma I would be reviving for her by suggesting that we buy one of the non-Christmas trees anyway and decorate it, I said thank you and hung up, muttering Santa Claus again. Then I dialed the number of every Google result for “Christmas tree farm” in four counties. On my seventh attempt, I got a response:

“Yes, we’re open till five today.”


An hour or so later, after driving far away from reliable wireless service and guessing at roads, we entered a kind of waste land, where it was clear that a tree farm of sorts had once been. What rose up instead were occasional dwarf firs amid acres of dirt. In the distance, on the very edge of the property, we saw three enormous spruces: crosses between the National Christmas tree and whatever Clark Griswold had once tied to the roof of his family’s station wagon, each about 16 or so feet high.

“You want that thing?” the guy who evidently worked for the tree farm asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“For your house?”

“Why not? Besides, these other things are too small.”

“It was a bad year. All the stuff we had in-between has been gone for weeks. But we’re still open. If you get a saw and cut it yourself, you can have it for 25 bucks.”

With some help from my wife, who bribed the three older children into sitting still in the van with a box of Sweet Tarts, I managed to fell the tree with a rusty hacksaw that looked like a prop from a surgery scene in a Napoleonic Wars epic. The tree farm employee stood there watching us in silent wonder as we climbed under it for the last bit of cutting and dragged it toward him, but he was kind enough to bag the tree up for us and even helped get it on top of the van. (Immediately afterward I realized that we had come all this way without straps and pulleys or at least some rope—the farm was happy to sell us some tie-downs for more than the price of the tree itself.)

When we got home, the first question was how to get the tree down from the roof of the van without dropping it. This was when I noticed something else that was wrong:

“These Santa Claus-ing needles are really sharp.”

“I touched them,” my wife said. “They’re soft.”

“Whatever. Let’s do this together.” With her leading the narrow top, we brought the tree in the direction of the front door, which our son had naturally closed. “Santa Claus!” After nudging the door open again, we carried our burden to the back of the living room, where the stand was waiting next to a pathetically inadequate-looking tree skirt. It was like putting Mama June next to a pair of Kate Moss’s lingerie.

“This isn’t going to work,” my wife said.

“Of course it will. First I lift it straight up and hold it in place while you tighten the stand. Then I get the ladder and the X-Acto to cut through the mesh.”

“Then you open it and one of these limbs smashes through the window?” she suggested.


This did not happen, thank goodness. Instead what followed in the next five or so minutes were: repositionings of the tree stand, intentional (5); repositionings of the stand, unintentional (3); accusations that I did not possess an elementary knowledge of the laws of physics (1); accusations that my wife did not possess the same (1); accusations that my wife did not know the difference between left and right (2); insistences that my X-Acto knife was dull (1); insistences that I did not know how to use an X-Acto or any other knife (2); claims that the mesh was actually made of some hitherto unknown alloy (1); theoretical speculation about the anti-Newtonian logic according to which the limbs unfurled themselves after being released from the mesh (3); requests for a beer directed at the children (1); inquiries as to whether a bottle of wine was currently being chilled (2); invocations of “Santa Claus” and variants, inaudible (15-plus), invocations of Santa Claus, audible despite the presence of children (5); declarations that we should get the chainsaw and cut some much-needed firewood right there in the living room (1).

When it was all over, and the the tree was more or less secure and free in the stand, though tilted forward at a hideous angle that is still in need of correction, I found myself feeling uncomfortable:

“THESE SANTA CLAUS-ING NEEDLES ARE SO SHARP!” I cried, all but repeating myself.

“No, they aren’t. You’re out of your mind.”

“Santa Claus that. I feel like I’ve been stabbed eight million times. Look at my Santa Claus-ing arm!” I shouted again, revealing what appeared to be hundreds of tiny red scratches.

“Those aren’t cuts. You’re allergic.”

“If you’re telling me that I am actually allergic to this four-hundred-pound Tolkien forest monster that we just drove half a state away to pick up and then spent half an hour getting inside and unwrapped and in the stand, I will—”

“You’ll what? Carry it back outside?”

Of course I didn’t. The tree sits there now, bowed just slightly, awaiting the boxes of decorations we will soon begin dragging up from the basement and a final run to the store for lights (we will need approximately a mile of them), in anticipation of the feast upon which we are assured that “the crooked shall be made straight.”

The basement is silent and, as far as I am aware, dry.



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