The Leaning Tower of Christmas

We set out, as all families do, to find a tree with a quiet Bavarian dignity, nothing too grand. Good posture is important. A certain northwoods musk. A pregnant fullness around the belly. That’s about it.

Now our new tree sits in a corner of the den, listing 12 degrees starboard, as if whipped by a holiday storm.

Meet our latest tree: The Leaning Tower of Christmas.

Obviously, everyday life is just a little harder for me. Of all my friends, I have the plainest house. Cozy, comfortable, the roof doesn’t leak, yet it’s hardly a showplace. And when we set out to buy a tree from the charity lot by the Y, I know to sneak a peek at the bank balance first.

So, there we are, in the tree lot, on a rainy Sunday. The trees are still dripping a little from an earlier downpour. In about 15 minutes, we zero in on one, and the Tree People lug it off for a fresh cut and a new stand.

“Eyeballs on the tree!” I tell Smartacus and Rapunzel. “I need eyeballs on that tree!!!”

Because when you look over at the busy work area, there are always three or four trees on sawhorses, getting a little work. The Tree People are flipping the patients this way and that, like Big Ten  cheerleaders, high with occasional somersaults. It would be super easy to mix them up, so that the tree we pick isn’t the tree we buy.

It’d be like leaving a holiday party with the wrong woman. Which happens.

I leave Smartacus in charge of the tree, and Rapunzel in charge of Smartacus. I go to pay: Two-thousand bucks, or whatever it costs these days for a crooked 7-foot tree, nothing too fancy. Plus a sturdy stand.

Now, do you think for a moment that I would inspect the tree after they put on the stand, to be sure it’s a 90-degree installation? No. Because this is only my 40th Christmas buying a family tree. And, as I said, life is just a little bit harder for me.

That’s why now, a few hours later, the Leaning Tower of Christmas is listing 12 degrees starboard…no, make that 13 degrees…14 degrees. Apparently, it’s about to lie down for a nap.

“It’s dancing, Dad,” says Rapunzel.

“They all sway a little,” I tell her.

“Like the great skyscrapers,” adds Smartacus.

“Is it on rollers too?” Rapunzel asks.

When we get the tree home, the most-beautiful tree we could find (only $2,000), and realize it is a little bit bent – not much, 12-24 degrees — I try to twist it back upright … I try to shoulder it plumb.

“Still leaning, Dad,” says the lovely and patient older daughter, with the gauzy eyes of someone who has seen this too many times before.

And there is, we determine, the slight possibility that the stand may be leaking. Not quickly, not like my car: Rhonda the Honda.

This is more of a slow leak, so that there’s always a shiny layer of slime just beneath the tree, enough to wet the beautifully wrapped presents and slip down between the new laminate and the subfloor, ruining everything.

It is as if our tree, purchased primarily for its Bavarian dignity and incredible stature, has an oozy bladder.

Once again, this is something we realize a little too late – after the lights are on, after hundreds of ornaments/heirlooms have been lovingly placed…after we make Posh’s famous chicken chili, put on some Streisand, throw a log on the fire, chase Cakes ‘round and ‘round the kitchen squealing, scold Penny Laine for stealing her bread, sing Handel’s Messiah as Smartacus places the angel atop the tree…


Point is, we discover the possible leak just a little too late.

“Worst case,” I tell Suzanne later, “is that I have to take off all the ornaments, all the lights, lash the tree to the roof of Rhonda the Honda, and return it to the tree lot, where the generally confused and super-nice teenaged Tree People will look at me slightly askance, with the growing realization that this dude can’t even purchase a simple Christmas tree – and what is he? Like, 80?”

Suzanne laughs, but not too hard, which is probably what I like about her more than anything.

No, worst case: We don’t have a cozy little house, with three funny kids to help me decorate for the holidays, and a granddaughter/elf who is buzzed on Christmas, twirling about as if to Tchaikovsky, chased by a very hungry pup.

Worst case? I have none of this.

For books, past columns and gifts, please go to Email the author at

21 thoughts on “The Leaning Tower of Christmas

  1. A roof that doesn”t leak, Mr. Erskine? C’mon, Man, you must have moved to Bel Air! And all this talk about leaking and oozing reminds me that I should head over to Costco in Burbank before they’re out of Depends for the holidays.

  2. Our tree has the same issue. I picked a 7 foot tree, paid and left to have it delivered. No eyes on the tree people. When it arrived it was someone else’s 9 foot tree. Needless to say it didn’t fit our room. The delivery teenager did have a saw to chop
    off the top 2 feet. It is a very strange tree, topless and tilts sharply to the right. However it is a big improvement over our Covid tree. When we arrived at the lot they only had 4 1-2 foot trees left. Our kids think we have lost it 😊

  3. Man I love this! Captures what all of us do and feel this time of year. One Christmas as we were eating dinner the Christmas tree fell over on all of us at the table. Note to self, don’t put the tree in the dining room:) Merry Christmas and keep writing. It brings alot of joy!

      1. The crazy Helgren approach was to leave the tree up long past Christmas, watch the needles fall and then decorate the bare branches with Easter eggs as Easter approached. The Helgren household, circa 1970, in a nutshell….

  4. You got me today. Verklempt. In all the fol-de-rol of Christmas, the essence is the love of our families and friends. May God continue to richly bless you, Chris. Merry Christmas to you and yours. ❣️

  5. After 55 years and $$$$$of dollars later, we succumbed to the artificial tree! Miss the smell but not the mess! And, that little red headed Angel! Now that’s a blessing. BTW I had a kid that lived on onesie’s, hated clothes n shoes❤️

  6. We have one of those leaning trees also. But no grand elfs running around.. I miss those days. Ours are too old!

  7. Glad you finally saw the light -“Worst case? I have none of this.”
    You have all of that, plus memories of Christmas celebrations with beloved family no longer here, but your memories of them are a blessing. And you’re not in assisted living.

  8. The pictures a little small on my computer, but I’m pretty sure it’s not leaning, it’s just jaunty. Like the guy who bought it.

  9. Where in heavens great circle of Christmas Tree buying did a tree not list one way or another? You put it the corner, so the list is either backwards to the wall or forward towards the middle of the room. That’s it! The leaking part is on you….and the floor!

  10. I don’t know if there is a better way to do this. The tree always looks different on the lot than in the house. Lists to starboard and egregious violations of linearity seem to vaporize in the crisp, sunny morning clime of the lot with all of its piney froth, sawdust, and industrious brio. The tree stand always leaks, if not now, later, at some impossibly frenetic juncture with holiday revels. The tree sheds needles starting at day one, and continues doing this for the length of its stay in the house. The needles lodge in the carpet. Some pet or other spots Valhalla somewhere in the tree, and climbs up it to get a better look. The tree is relentlessly thirsty and runs out of water at random times of the day and night, a condition you were told by the twinkly tree lot salesman equates to death, a needle avalanche, and a serious fire hazard. I could go on and on…

    You have a dying wild thing in your house, for god’s sake! No wonder artificial trees have steadily gained currency.;especially in the plastics industry. Now, if they could just get that chemical tang out of the artificial pine smell the plastic trees are designed to emit. In the heat of the strings of lights festooning their perfectly balanced and feplicated branches. If we can go to the moon, we should be able to….

  11. My dad got near-ceiling high Christmas trees, he wired the tree to a hook in the walls to keep them up straight. I think Christmas trees are made to tilt, a little askew, like us.

Leave a Reply