O Tin-nenbaum

This year, we welded our holiday totem; maybe next year we'll get it chromed.

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Before the metal Christmas tree, my husband used to think of the holidays the way he thought of traffic school. Sure, they may offer you a couple of free slices of pizza; sure, the instructor may be one hell of a funny guy; but the bottom line is this: You Are Required To Be There. It's court-ordered. If you don't show up, buster, you're in for it.

Matt was never a Grinch about the season, but he was never a Who down in Whoville, either. The holidays held no true joy for him. They felt like one big fat expensive obligation. Standing in line at the DMV, taxes, regular dental visits, holidays -- all filled him with the same sense of duty and dread.

I have always loved the holidays. I've always loved lighting the Chanukah candles, saying the blessing. I've always loved assembling the pieces of the small artificial Christmas tree from my assimilated Jewish childhood. Dust and old plastic smell more like Christmas to me than pine boughs and frankincense ever will.

Now that the scent of spray paint and acetylene have become part of our holiday traditions, Matt appreciates the season much more, too.

I don't remember how the subject of a metal Christmas tree first came up. I suppose it was inevitable -- Matt has always loved tinkering around with metal. When our son was little, he welded together a stroller loosely based on the shape of the running strollers that were just starting to become popular. If you tried to run with this stroller, though, you'd get much more of a workout than you'd bargained for. The thing was massive and angular, made of heavy rectangular steel bars. I could fit in the blue canvas seat, myself, with Arin in my lap. The bottom was fitted with sheet metal, which came in handy -- I would wrestle the stroller to the grocery store down the street with Arin lounging in the hammock-y chair, and walk home with several bags of groceries resting under him on the metal shelf.

Matt has also welded a bed frame strung with bungee cord, which was a bit more bouncy than he had anticipated; a push scooter fashioned with an engine that took it up to 35 mph; and some great metal-and-wood shelves for our house. He hasn't yet crafted the mechanical chicken he dreams about, but I know he'll make it a reality someday, in all its shiny poultry glory.

However the idea for the Christmas tree first came about, it soon became a family affair. While Matt made the "trunk" out of 1-inch steel tubing and welded on several small sleeves of steel for the branches to plug into, I measured out lengths of quarter-inch steel rod for the branches, with smaller pieces to weld on as twigs. I cut them with huge bolt cutters, my whole body getting into the act -- one foot holding down the bottom handle of the cutter, both hands pushing at the top. The deep clunk as the blades passed through metal was a strangely satisfying experience.

The kids arranged the branches on the floor of the garage, sticking the twigs in different formations on the larger sticks, making each branch unique as a snowflake. Some of the branches had a diamond of twigs jutting out of the end, some looked feathered, others resembled arrows.

After the branches were all laid out, we each put on goggles and welding masks and watched Matt burn the pieces together. It felt every bit as festive as gathering around a yule log, maybe even more so.

If you've never seen metal being welded, you have missed what I think is one of the most gorgeous things available to the (shielded) human eye. Metal looks magical as it melts, alchemical, like some strange and luminous cellular process.

When I took off my mask, I felt disoriented, as if I had been on a journey to the hot, oozy, center of the earth and had to adjust again to the thin light of the sun. The welding torch had chewed into the concrete floor of the garage, leaving strange scorch marks, footprints of fire, lasting mementos of our holiday creation.

After the branches cooled, we fit them onto the trunk. The result was surprisingly lush looking, full and very tree-like. We debated about whether to keep the tree in its heat-streaked, almost iridescent, state, but Matt decided that it would rust too easily. We ended up spray-painting the whole thing two shades of blue. Our plan is to repaint the tree in a different color each year, or, maybe even have it chromed somewhere along the line.

Once the paint dried and the fumes dissipated, we brought the tree into the house. I could see the holiday spirit finally ignite in Matt's eyes as he placed a flashlight-shaped tool he had crafted on the very top of the tree.

While we hope to some day make funky ornaments out of motherboards, the 1968 reindeer and elves from my first Christmas looked pretty groovy hanging from the metal branches. When we plugged in the string of lights, the whole tree, and the whole holiday season, came to sudden, dazzling life. We stood around it and sang.

By Gayle Brandeis

Gayle Brandeis is the author of the Bellwether Prize winning novel The Book of Dead Birds. Her memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, will be published next year

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