Fir Trees Do Not Grow in the Rain Forest:  Getting into the Spirit…and a Break

No sooner did we post a few weeks ago about decorating for Christmas in Panamá, including mention that we had not yet taken the artificial Christmas tree we inherited with our house upon arriving in Panamá last year out of its box to put up in our new apartment, than our seasonal decor plans took an unforeseen turn.  We had figured that – sometime after Thanksgiving – Brian would start listening to Christmas music channels on AccuRadio.com, inspiring him to pull the fake tree out of its box in our guest room closet, and Audrey would grimace slightly while granting her willingness to put it up, so long as Brian promised to take it down soon after Christmas (in order to avoid the “Easter tree” phenomenon that past procrastination sometimes brought into our otherwise wedded paradise).

Nope.  Not how it happened.

On the last Saturday of November – Thanksgiving Weekend and the official start of the Christmas Season by American calendar and custom – we found ourselves out running errands.  First we walked to Town Center, the mall just a few blocks from our Costa del Este home, to buy presents for some kids whom Audrey had “adopted” to make sure they had a good Christmas.  As we walked to and from Town Center we kept seeing cars driving on the roads with honest-to-goodness real fir trees tied on top.

That’s strange,” we said to each other, “there sure are a lot of Christmas trees buzzing around the streets.  Fir trees do not grow in the rainforest.”  And these trees looked good – healthy, green, fresh, and big.  We figured the ritzy class of Costa del Este were willing to pay several hundred dollars for real trees from some designer store instead of having fake trees, and left it at that.

A bit later we hopped in the car and drove to Costa del Este’s Riba Smith for grocery shopping.  As we wound through CDE in our car, we again saw lots of cars topped with real trees…

And what happened, then?  Well, in Panamá they say

That Audrey’s small heart grew three sizes that day.

And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through,

And Audrey said…“What would you think about getting a real tree this year?”  (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.  We know, it does not rhyme.)

Not that Audrey is a Grinch.  Far from it. For the record, she has always had a very large and compassionate heart.  But this is the Audrey who, throughout our years in Morocco, urged each Christmas that we not bother getting a tree and that Brian not go “overboard” on decorating our apartment with lights and bowls of ornaments (since we had no tree upon which to put them)…

Indeed, the same Audrey who, during our years in Arizona, wanted to bother so little with Christmas decor in Scottsdale’s desert environs that each December we would just move a small potted Norfolk pine to the middle of our living room and hang a few light ornaments on its flexile branches.  Audrey still insists it was her version of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, saying, “I’m a minimalist, and less is more.”

Nearly a decade has passed since our last real tree – a giant of a fir that filled-well our large 14-foot ceiling living room in Louisiana, our state of residence at the time.  Brian, with evergreens in his Pacific Northwest DNA, last year had rejoiced merely to be able to put up our new-to-us fake tree, then loved Audrey’s decorating it with two rolls of toilet paper and a COVID mask to give it as much personality as we could muster in Panama’s reprised pandemic lockdown.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/24/covid-christmas-in-panama/)  So he knew not what wondrous stirrings suddenly caused Audrey to want a real tree, but he needed no convincing.  Somehow, after filling our grocery cart with a week’s worth of supplies and getting into the checkout line, instead of thinking, “Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!” she wanted a tree…a real tree…with real decorations.

It was as if she had a smile to her soul as she descended Mount Crumpet cheerily blowing “Who! Who!” on her trumpet.

From two people behind us in the Riba Smith checkout line we heard the husband of an ISP teacher calling out to us.  Audrey asked if he knew where people were buying the Christmas trees.  He did, in fact, and had almost bought one himself for his family’s apartment two buildings over from ours.  He told Audrey where to find them (not a crusty fru-fru establishment, but a different grocery store in the neighborhood) and how they cost no more than if we went tree-shopping in the U.S. (not the hundreds of dollars we had predicted).  So we checked out and went home to put away our weekly storehouse.  And all the while Audrey grew more excited about buying a real tree and ornaments.  And all the while Brian grew more excited about Audrey growing more excited about buying a real tree and ornaments.  

After finishing stowing things in the fridge and pantry, we hopped back in the car and drove to CDE’s Super99 grocery store in search of a Christmas tree.  In a corner of the parking lot stood a blue-tarped, fenced enclosure fronted by a blanket of  pine needles on the ground.  Under the blue tarp, the small enclosure was dark, and housed only a handful or two of remaining trees.  But they were beautiful – lush, green, fresh, and rich with natural pine scent – not from the rainforest but shipped down from Quebec.  They had just one size left:  2.5+ meters (more than 8 feet).  Audrey worried they might be too tall for our apartment’s nine-foot ceiling, but Brian felt confident we could cut the base and top to fit even accounting for the extra inches of a tree stand.  So we bought the smallest of the remaining trees and had them lop off several inches when they cut the base.  Then they ran it through a netting device like Christmas tree professionals and tied it to the top of our car.  Had we gone even a few hours later, the fenced blue-tarp tree cave would have had no more trees to sell.

Then, tree atop our four-wheeled sleigh, more rapid than eagles our coursers took us over to Novey (like Panamanian Home Depot) to buy some Christmas balls and a star for the top.  By American standards we were at the start of the Christmas shopping and decorating season.  However, with Panama’s yuletide having run for almost a month at that point, it was nearing the end of its season and had 50 percent off all Christmas supplies that were left.  Knowing that we have three big boxes of Christmas decor shipping next spring from our storage when Brian makes his next PNW trip in April/May, we did not need much to make the tree look merely sufficient this year.  Lights, however, were a problem.  Novey had only outside icicle lights left.  Brian rectified that a couple days later when he walked to Arrocha (sort of a Michael’s-type chain in Panama) in Town Center and bought several strings of tree lights.  With lights secured, we decorated the tree one evening.  Brian capped the decorating by placing the star atop the tree as it just kissed the ceiling, doing his best Bumble impression to reenact a favorite scene from our childhood Christmases watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  It is sufficient for this year, and we know that next year we will have our family history of ornaments to put on another real fir tree to make our home Christmassy.  

So for the last three weeks it has smelled like pine needles in our apartment.  The aroma helps foster an increasing sense of Christmas spirit.  And today Audrey made her full transition into Christmas mode with her last day of classes at ISP before a long – three week! – Christmas break.

Last year, with schools operating virtually only, ISP could not do much to lead students into the Christmas break with festivities.  “Enjoy a virtual candy cane and virtual Christmas cookies” would not play too well with student stakeholders…or with teachers, for that matter.  But this year, with ISP in full on-campus operations since kicking off the year in August, Audrey got to experience the traditional ISP all-staff Christmas sendoff at the end of the school day that she missed in her maiden year leading ISP 12 months ago.  It began with Christmas music blasting and faculty and staff lining the hallways adorned in Santa hats and reindeer antlers while carolling for students as they headed down the halls.  Then they moved to the parking lots and pickup areas to wave and cheer – still in Santa hats and reindeer antlers – as buses rolled out and parents rolled in to pick up their kids.  There was much horn-honking to express delight and to reciprocate Christmas cheer back to the faculty and staff.  

So now we have moved officially into full Christmas mode.  Our plans remain simple.  We have no friends or family visiting us this Christmas.  Like last year, we will celebrate quietly together, talking with family and friends through digital screens instead of face-to-face.  But this Christmas season just feels more festive, like we have moved closer to how we hope next year we can celebrate.  Our real fir tree, from Quebec instead of from the rainforest and decorated sufficiently with lights and undistinguished ornaments, has helped to boost that feeling.  On Christmas Day, Brian will carve a Christmas ham for the two of us instead of the Grinch carving rare Who roast beast for a long table of Whos.  We will celebrate the blessings in our lives and in our life together.  And we will switch from Dr. Seuss to Dickens in order to say, “God bless us, every one.”

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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