Editor’s Note-Merry Christmas Anyway

Editor’s Note-Merry Christmas Anyway

Thinking of the past and the presents.

In December 1979, at the end of my very first year as a business reporter, the editor of the Worthington, Minnesota, Daily Globe asked me if I could write a Christmas feature. I had planned a story comparing sales of natural evergreen and artificial Christmas trees, but the editor wanted “something warmer.”

The post office was across the street, and I asked the postmaster if I could look over letters that had been written to Santa Claus. Within minutes, I was back in the newsroom with a handful of envelopes, certain that some would contain poignant appeals for necessities—a pair of mittens, maybe?—or heartrending requests on behalf of siblings or less fortunate neighbors.

The first letter was three words long: “Daredevil sports van.” I opened another.

“I am in the fourth grade,” it began. “I want a radio-controlled Corvette.” A story-ruining pattern was developing.

Several letters consisted entirely of the words “I want” and a list of merchandise. One girl listed 20 items she hoped to receive, including a Pepsi-Cola dispenser and a robot. Other wish lists were almost as long, and none of the letter writers asked for anything for anyone but themselves.

Only one used the word “please.” Two—two out of two dozen—wished Santa a merry Christmas. None offered to set out a snack for Santa or the reindeer. One did not bother to provide the names of desired toys, only the order numbers from the Sears catalog. Let Santa look them up; what else does he have to do in mid-December?

You are tempted to laugh. Note, however, that those kids would be in their late 30s now, and could be your company's middle managers—aging and disheartened Generation Xers multislacking through the holidays, downing eggnog lattes and complaining about the paucity of their year-end bonuses. When you are done reading this, e-mail them our holiday gift guide, which they can use to drop hints about presents they'd like this year.

Back to 1979: I still wanted to write about Christmas tree sales and thought the right place to start might be the National Christmas Tree Association, then located in Milwaukee. A spokesman chatted agreeably about the relative popularity of firs, pines, and balsams, but when I bought up artificial trees, his tone changed.

“Fake,” he corrected me. When I again used the word “artificial,” he again corrected me: “Fake.” Didn't I know that fake trees hurt American farmers? That many were made in Japan? That we had a growing trade deficit? That plastic is a petroleum product, and that our demand for oil was helping people like Iran's ayatollah?

With the impertinence for which reporters are often excoriated, I questioned his answers. Artificial trees are good for the retailers, aren't they? What about the fuel used to harvest and deliver natural trees? Artificial trees have to make sense in some situations, don't they?

He took a breath. “Fake trees,” he said slowly, “are for people who want fake holidays.” Before hanging up, I wished him a merry Christmas. He paused for a few seconds. “Well, merry Christmas anyway,” he said.

Today, the National Christmas Tree Association operates a Web site, christmastree.org, with a “Fake Trees” landing page. It notes that most fake trees are now imported from China, and many contain polyvinyl chloride, the manufacture of which disperses “the most toxic man-made chemical known.”

The site offers an online game, Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees, featuring an angry, purple, green-eyed tree with mechanical claws—and this bit of history: “In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company created the first artificial-brush trees—using the same machinery (and materials) that made their toilet brushes!”

“The first fake Christmas trees were really just big green toilet bowl brushes.”

Merry Christmas anyway.

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