Oh Christmas Tree, Oh, Christmas Tree….
December 22, 2013 at 1:50pm
For anyone who lives with a cat (notice I said “lives with a cat” not “owns a cat”), one aspect of the holidays brings with it a certain amount of anxiety: the Christmas tree.
We position it in our front window, arrange our gifts around it, take photos in front of it. It’s the centerpiece of the whole shebang, the hub around which the wheel of the holiday turns. It’s not Christmas until the tree is up, and it ain’t over till the tree comes down.
It doesn’t matter whether your own particular feline has ever touched a single needle on the spruce; you still watch the cat with one eye and the tree with the other, and wind up cross-eyed by New Year’s. It’s the possibility of ruin, the sheer scale of the potential for destruction, which sticks in the back of your mind like an itch you can’t quite scratch, until the ornaments are safely back in the attic and the tree nothing more than a pile of pine needles and naked branches by the curb.
For myself, I blame the tales of Tannenbaum tragedy told by friends and family and countless strangers on Facebook. And because I’ve lived with a cat named Doolittle for many years now, I know exactly what mischief the creature is capable of, if he so chooses.
And that is possibly the thing that holds the most terror: that the cat can choose, or not choose, to do what he will. I’ve yet to find any foolproof method of shaping Doolittle’s behavior in any meaningful way. Sure, there’s the spray bottle; Doolittle really dislikes the fine mist of water aimed at his face (which is strange because he has found a new game: playing under the leaky bathtub faucet until he’s good and soggy, then coming to rub his wet head all over me. But I digress). But the spray bottle deterrent has limited usefulness until such time as I can afford to hire someone to sit under the tree around the clock for the entire month of December.
This is the thing I simply cannot seem to make my mother understand: that you cannot train a cat not to do what a cat wants to do. The most you can hope for is to train the cat not to do something as long as you are watching it. Once your back is turned, all bets are off.
In the area of behavior modification, I do have one ace in the hole: the vacuum cleaner. All I have to do is pull it out of the closet, and Doo runs like his tail is on fire and his ass is catching.
“It’s just the vacuum cleaner, Doo,” I’ve tried to tell him. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
“Monster will eat me,” Doo insists, peeking around the corner of the upstairs hall and down the stairs to where I stand with one hand on my trusty Hoover.
“Don’t be ridiculous. The vacuum cleaner is not going to eat you.”
“Oh yeah? Den what happened to other cat?”
“What other cat?”
“De other cat dat used to live here. Me can smell another cat inside Hoover-monster.”
Crap, I think. It is very possible that he really can detect a faint trace of my last cat, Luci, in the bristles of the ancient Hoover. Doo doesn’t know that he’s not my first cat, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Do you think I’d let the Hoover eat you?” I ask instead.
“Me dunno. Humans do weird things all the time,” he says suspiciously. “You got coat in closet with rabbit skin.”
I am embarrassed and ashamed. I do in fact have a coat with a hood trimmed in real rabbit fur. But I swear it was an accident.
“Poor naked rabbit out there somewhere ‘cause you got his fur,” Doo continues.
“I didn’t know it was real rabbit when I bought it! I don’t believe in killing animals for fur—”
“Killing?” Doo squeaks. “What you mean killing?”
Desperate to end the conversation, I turn on the vacuum and Doo heads for the hills.
But I don’t want to live with the Hoover parked in front of the tree all month for obvious aesthetic reasons. Besides, if the Hoover lived out of the closet, I fear it would lose its power to terrify and then where would I be?
The situation with the tree makes me a little nervous because I’ve put so much time, effort and money into it, and by the time I get it set up in the living room, the emotional investment is also significant. I’ve finally gotten it to stand up straight; the paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey was exactly the right size to wedge under the wobbly leg, and I’m glad that the book was actually good for something after all. There’s the added bonus that under the tree skirt, no innocent bystander will accidently pick it up and do something stupid, like read it.
I’ve sorted the light strands that have spent a whole year magically weaving themselves into some kind of macramé from hell. I’ve replaced all the burnt-out bulbs, digging through the bottom of all eight plastic totes looking for the extras that I was sure I had in my hot little hands just a minute ago.
My ornament collection has taken years to accumulate: from the rather grimy but treasured felt and glitter hobby horse from childhood; to the cross-stitched ornaments my BFF and I made to go on our first tree when we had virtually nothing; to the surfing Santa my mom brought me from Hawaii; to the hand-blown glass ornaments I buy every year; to the complete set of Hallmark’s Scarlett O’Hara figurines. Add the garlands of silk poinsettias, the red and gold braided bead ropes, and the glittering gold ribbons woven through the branches with the kind of attention to balance and contrast that only the obsessive-compulsive can achieve – and there it is. My Christmas tree.
When it is done, I sit on the sofa and look at my gorgeous tree, decorated to within an inch of its life, and bask in the warm glow of holiday perfection. It’s mine to enjoy for a whole month of spiked eggnog sipped under its hypnotic glow.
Then I notice the cat. He’s looking at the tree, too, with that inscrutable expression of Buddhas and certain well-medicated lunatics. And I don’t trust him.
My tree is now artificial, but it makes no difference because a Christmas tree is still a tree, inhabiting the same enclosed space with a cat that has absolutely nothing to do all day long except sleep, eat, obsess a bout squirrel incursions, and consider wreaking havoc.
The tree, meanwhile, possesses three characteristics absolutely irresistible to any feline: it’s climbable; it is covered with enticingly fragile, swinging objects; and it’s something they instinctively know you don’t want them to mess with.
Doo’s first Christmas with me was the worst, of course. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was that uncertainty that led me to make two of my biggest mistakes with this cat.
Doo was asleep on the top of the sofa, but he opened one suspicious eye when I dragged the enormous box down the stairs into the living room. He yawned extravagantly and watched me cut through the layers of clear tape that were now the only thing holding the box together.
“It’s my Christmas tree.”
He stretched, then jumped down and sauntered over to sniff at the segment of branches I’d laid aside as I assembled the base of the tree.
“Don’t smell like tree,” he said, parking his butt a few feet away.
“It’s artificial,” I explained.
I was thankful this was a newer tree, and not like the one my family used to have when I was growing up. That tree had been a nightmare: a seven-foot tall plastic “trunk” and fifty individual branches, which had to be sorted according to size and inserted into slots in the trunk.
But at least sorting the branches gave my sister and me something to do while Mom and Dad went through the annual ritual of untangling and testing the lights. Even so, there was always at least half an hour that my sister and I sat watching impatiently, our jobs done, while the Twinkle Torture went on and on as Dad became increasingly frustrated.
Then began the excruciating process of inserting the branches — one careful ascending ring at a time — while Dad arranged the strands along each branch for maximum coverage.
“There are two blue lights right next to each other,” my mother would say. “Push one of them to the back.”
“Where?” Dad would step back from the tree and frown. “I don’t see two blues together—”
“Jerry, they’re right there. No, not that branch!” From across the room, my mother would point again, as if pointing repeatedly and energetically would miraculously help Dad to see the offending blue lights that had somehow conspired to clump together. “THAT branch!”
Mom obsessed about the color distribution, while Dad’s fixation was making sure that the overall coverage was constant from branch to branch.
Their marriage might have been saved if only pre-lit trees had been introduced thirty years earlier. Because of such childhood trauma, as an adult I chose to have nothing but white lights, just in case it’s genetic. I also bought a tree that came in three sections, because, as God as my witness, I will never sort fake tree branches again.
“Artificial?” Doo regarded me with narrowed eyes. “You mean it a lie.”
“A lie? Wow, that’s a bit harsh.” I was trying to fit the middle section onto the bottom section, and so far had managed to poke myself in the eye twice with a bundle of synthetic fir needles. “It’s not a lie, Doo, it’s just not a realtree.”
“So it fake,” he insisted.
“Okay, have it your way.” With my head surrounded by faux fir, I couldn’t see him, but I could easily imagine the superior expression on his little kitty face. “It’s a fake tree.”
“Why you want fake tree? Real trees, bigger than this thing, right outside de door.”
“Nothing.” I’d finally gotten the middle section in place, but had managed to pinch the side of my finger in the joint as I slid it home. At least if I bled on the tree, red was a holiday color. “Haven’t you seen a Christmas tree before, Doo?”
There was no response.
“You haven’t, have you?” I asked in wonder, sticking my head out from behind the three-quarter tree to look at him. “You’ve never seen a Christmas tree!”
“So what if me hasn’t?” he sniffed. “Fer all you know, me is Jewish.”
“Cats can’t be Jewish,” I scoffed.
“How you know?” Doo blinked at me, then licked himself. “Me could be Jewish.”
“But you’re not.”
“Oy vey. You know bubkes.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, you are NOT Jewish!”
“Maybe me was raised in Jewish family. You ever think of dat?”
I hesitated. Doo was annoyingly secretive about his life before coming to live with me, and this was probably just another of his outrageous lies told purely to torment me.
“So, where and when exactly did you live with this alleged family of the Chosen People?” I asked. “I want details.”
“Get used to disappointment,” he said, sitting up on his back legs and licking his belly.
“I don’t know why I bother even listening to you,” I sniffed. I picked up the top section of the tree and slipped it into place. “You are such a liar.”
“It fer your own good,” he said in between swipes of his tongue. “Me in Witness Protection.”
“Witless Protection would be more like it,” I grumbled. I had heard this particular nugget of hooey before, and no longer took the bait.
“Is you gonna tell me why you want fake tree in house?”
“It’s a Christmas tradition.” I fluffed up the flattened branches. “We put a tree in the house so we can decorate it.”
“Then what?” He was studying the tree in way that made me nervous. “You is too big to climb it.”
“Don’t you even think about climbing this tree! Not unless you wanna find yourself locked in the bathroom until New Year’s Day.”
He rolled his eyes to show me my threats meant nothing to him.
“So what does you do with it?” he asked again. “It look stupid, having tree inside that not even real tree.”
I plugged the cord into the wall socket, and the tree exploded in constellation of tiny white lights.
“Ooooo,” said the cat, in a voice hushed with wonder. “That pretty.”
“That is why we have a tree in the house,” I said.
I spent the next hour dragging four large plastic totes full of ornaments out of the attic. I knelt on the carpet and began unwrapping the first set of matching gold angels while Doolittle stared in rapt attention.
I was pleased that his skepticism was replaced by awe. He couldn’t take his eyes off the pretty ornaments….
Then I realized there was a spider crawling down my upper arm. The cat hadn’t been admiring the angels; he was stalking the spider.
“Aggh!” I yelped, doing the spider dance, waving my arms wildly and slapping at myself.
“Don’t kill it!” Doo meowed. “Me was gonna get him!”
“When?” I shuddered violently, scanning the floor for any sign of the spider. “Before or after it crawled down my shirt into my bra?”
“You such a sissy, hoo-man. Little bitty spiders is fun. Dey don’t taste so good, but dey is fun to chase.”
I hung the first angel on the tree. Doo was suddenly interested again, watching it swing on the branch before settling.
He poked the ornament with a paw and set it swinging again.
“Stop that! These are not to play with!”
“Den what is dey for?”
“To look at. They are not cat toys.”
“Says you.” Doolittle lifted one eyebrow. “Look like cat toys to me.”
“I’m not kidding,” I said, moving the angel to a higher spot. “Touch this tree or the decorations and you will be in big trouble.”
“Me has heared dat before,” Doolittle yawned. “Whatcho gonna do? Spray me wid da water bottle? Me ain’t afraid of no bottle.”
“I won’t do anything,” I said loftily. “But bad cats don’t get any presents.”
“Presents?” Doo perked up. “What is presents?”
Wow. He really was a Christmas newbie.
“Presents,” I repeated. “A gift. You know, like when you bring me a dead cricket.”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “So if me touch da tree, you won’t give me nothing? You don’t give me nothing anyway.”
“I do, too! I give you the crunchy treats and toy mice. And what about those scratching posts, huh?”
“If dat you idea of presents, me be fine widout dem.”
“Fine,” I grumbled. “But Santa Claus won’t be giving you anything either.”
“Who Santy Claws?”
I pulled out a ceramic Santa ornament, and explained the deal to Doo.
“Lemme get dis straight,” he said. “Dis fat man in a red suit flies around giving presents to cats all over da world?”
“Well, not just to cats,” I said. “Mostly to children. I mean, you can’t be older than four or five, right? In human years, that means you get presents from Santa Claus.”
His eyes narrowed and he blinked at me.
“Sounds fishy to me. You is making dis up so me will leave your precious tree alone.”
“Fine,” I said, turning my back on him and continuing to hang ornaments. “Look it up on the Internet if you don’t believe me.”
And there were two of my biggest mistakes: bribing Doo with the promise of Santa swag, and introducing him to the Internet.
Luckily for me, Doo is a very lazy cat. He has never attempted to climb the tree — at least that I have been aware of — except the year I made the mistake of hanging the motorized Santa-in-a-helicopter ornament that my sister gave me. I don’t know if it’s the motion or the faint whirring noise that drives him insane, but he will not leave it alone. In the box it stays.
He does take the occasional swipe at low hanging balls, just to keep his skills up. But more than anything, Doo likes to sleep under the tree, and it matters little to him that his butt is draped over an oddly-lumpy package wrapped in multicolored paper, while his head rests on a froth of curling ribbon and a glittered nametag. Hence, the quality of my gift wrapping and ribbons has declined markedly in recent years.
So if your gift looks like it has been drooled on, and the ribbon is crushed flat and covered in cat hair…. Well, it’s just Doolittle saying, “Happy Hanukah.”