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Life Uncategorized

Christmas tree, done right

My childhood Christmases weren’t always very merry. My parents’ divorce, frequent financial struggles, and neverending family strife often put a damper on the holiday season.

But one tradition consistently redeemed the unhappy Yuletide: our Christmas tree. It sits at the center of my holiday memories, cheery and bright. To this day, a good tree can make or break Christmas for me—so I’ve assembled my list of requirements for the Tannenbaum tradition:

  • Use a real tree. You wouldn’t feed your family imitation ham for Christmas dinner. Don’t give them an imitation tree, either. If erecting an eight-foot Fraser fir feels overwhelming, scale things back. Even a Christmas bush trumps any plastic alternative.
  • Visit a tree tree farm. On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, we make our annual pilgrimage to a local Christmas tree farm. This ritual marks the start of the holiday season for us. Of course, the visit itself isn’t always pleasant: think cold rain, blaring novelty music, and bratty kids brandishing saws. But it’s worth braving the “festivities” to have an opportunity to cut your own tree.

    If the nearest farm is too far to justify the trek, you’re stuck buying from a local tree lot. Make the best of your tree-shopping visit, but realize that an overlit grocery store lot may not deliver the tree farm’s romantic atmosphere. At least try to track down a reputable outlet that receives frequent deliveries of fresh-cut trees. You want a tree that was felled yesterday—not on Halloween. Know that you’ll pay a markup—to cover the cost of delivery and staffing the lot.

  • String your Christmas lights the right way. Trimming the tree can be dangerous. I’m not talking about disastrous tree accidents (although we’ve had those, too). The real risk is to your holiday spirit. Every family member has opinions on how best to hang Christmas lights—and they’ll likely wait till halfway through the project to chime in. No matter what technique you choose, you’re likely to be frustrated and irritable by the end of the ordeal. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to split the decorating over multiple days.

    As for the right technique… Too many tree decorators take the lazy way out, feebly laying the strands along the very outermost branches. This method is quick and easy, but the end result is less-than-ideal: a flat-looking tree with an unlit core.

    Here’s a better approach. Take your first strand’s “female” end in hand. Starting at the top of the tree, loosely wrap each individual branch from the trunk to the tip and back again. Then jump to a nearby branch and repeat. Don’t circle the entire tree; instead, divide it into thirds and light one section at a time, moving from side to side and from top to bottom. Once you’re done, you’ll have three male strand ends to plug into your power strip.

    This technique gives you a well-lit tree, featuring intriguing depth and interesting shadows. Your ornaments catch and reflect the light from every direction. More importantly, divying the tree into sections prevents you from daisy-chaining too many strands together (and creating a fire hazard).

    How many lights will you need? The short answer: “More than you think.” Hand-wrapping every tree branch eats up a lot of length. My general rule of thumb is 150–200 lights per foot of tree height. In other words, a six-foot tree requires about a thousand twinklers to light properly. That may seem like overkill, but it’s hard to overlight a tree.

  • Decorate the entire tree. One side of your tree will likely face a wall, but don’t skip decorating the hidden branches. You want your tree to look great from every angle—from the back deck, from the kids’ vantage point, from the side as you walk by. Hang your favorite ornaments out front and use cheaper, less sentimental decorations for less-visible areas.

    Hang ornaments at every depth—not just on the branches’ tips. Shiny baubles—like those ubiquitous red glass balls—look fantastic when hung near the trunk.

  • Leave your tree up a long time. The post-holiday season is long and dreary; why rush into it? In this case, procrastination should be encouraged. No Christmas tree should ever come down before January 6th. That’s the official end of the Christmas season (remember the “twelve days of Christmas”?). And it’s perfectly fine to leave your tree up till mid-January—as long as it’s still drinking water and holding onto its needles.
  • Save a memento. Once you finally do take down the tree, it feels almost sacrilegious to set it by the curb. This central fixture of the celebration, now brittle and brown, gets compacted with eggnog cartons and ripped wrapping paper.

    One way to remember the season’s centerpiece? Create a Christmas ornament. Saw a slice off the trunk and set it aside. Once the chunk dries out, sand it lightly and wood-burn a message into the smoothed surface (e.g. “Jill’s first Christmas tree, 2015”). Drill a hole for the string or hook. Finally, seal the wood with stain, polyurethane or gloss to help prevent rot.


Every family has different priorities for the holiday season. Maybe you’d rather dedicate your extra time to baking Christmas cookies, reconnecting with long-lost relatives, or just watching TV. But if your Christmas traditions—like mine—always revolved around the tree itself, it’s worth taking the time to do it right.

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internet TV Uncategorized

Streaming TV wins—except on Thanksgiving.

Like many millennials, I don’t subscribe to traditional TV. Cable companies overcharge for an inferior, viewer-hostile product. Once you get used to streaming, you can’t go back to TV’s linear air times, limited programming options, and endless sponsor breaks.

… Except during Thanksgiving. Combine extra vacation time with an extended family’s varied tastes, and streaming has some downsides. Its chief appeal—the ability to choose—suddenly becomes a burden. The tribe gathers around TV’s warm, glowing, warming glow, then spends twenty frustrating minutes browsing Netflix. You scroll hopelessly past shows recommended for you—but not for Grandma Marigold. If someone proposes a program, stubborn vetoes and frustrated groans arise from all corners. Some family members play the passive-aggressive card (“Oh, that movie? Well, I can always go in the other room”). Eventually, the feuding factions brook a compromise: a movie everyone can stomach but no one really likes.


Contrast that to cable, where there are fewer disagreements and no tough decisions. The entire family knows that the shows are trash. Everyone resigns themselves to low-quality entertainment: faux-“reality” TV, bastardized movie edits, over-sponsored sports.

There’s something nice about traditional TV’s limitations. One hour flows seamlessly into the next—often, another episode of the same show. Your brain shuts down, and you table your worries: the dead-end job, the mortgage payment, your lonely social life. TV doesn’t make you feel good, exactly, but it drowns out the bad thoughts. A wired, buzzy sensation sets in; it’s—not happiness, exactly, but close. Combine TV with a steady intake of holiday leftovers, and the experience is kind of wonderful.

Kind of. Eventually, your Thanksgiving bender ends, and the hangover sets in. Your head feels hollow. Your eyes ache. You look back in horror at what you’ve done (“I wasted four days watching Property Brothers?!”). Ashamed, you swear never to binge on TV ever again.

But don’t kid yourself. Christmas break is coming, and that 72-hour Mythbusters marathon ain’t gonna watch itself.

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movies Uncategorized

An oral history of ‘Home Alone’

George Lucas on Home Alone (as recounted by the former chairman of Twentieth Century Fox):

You know you’ve got a big hit coming? The one about the kid. The movie business is binary. The light is either on or it’s off. If it’s on, there’s nothing you can do to screw it up.

Home Alone hit theaters twenty-five years ago this week. Chicago Magazine’s oral history is well worth a read. It recounts how a simple Christmas movie became a runaway success.

Home Alone remains one of my holiday favorites. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was nine years old (the same age as the film’s hero) when I first saw it. For my younger self, the film struck the perfect balance between schmaltz, prepubescent irreverence, and slapstick.

It’s easier to see the seams now (for example, we spend most of the movie waiting for the booby trap sequence). But the John Williams score still whips up instant nostalgia, and the Old Man Marley ending makes me weepy. (Don’t judge me. I’m a sucker for father-son reconciliation stories.)

What better way to waste time this Thanksgiving week than to revisit the McCallisters, the Wet Bandits, and the Sound Bend Shovel Slayer?