Delivering Christmas: A True Account of Holiday Travails

Sitting in front of my laptop, cozy in my sweater, cup of still-steaming chamomile at my side, it’s hard to believe that only an hour ago, I was still not done with my workday. This time of year, I deliver and set up Christmas trees in and around Athens, an apparently unique service which has only recently began to catch on in other areas. It’s stressful at times, but I keep up my spirits by knowing that I’m helping to bring a measure of holiday joy into people’s houses. This is a task I take on with some measure of pride, since the customers are inviting me into their homes to assist with their holiday celebrations.

I really try to get into the spirit of the season, as well: I have a Santa hat I can wear if I know kids are going to be present, and there’s something magical about riding through Athens and seeing the houses lit up with sparkling lights and decorations. It almost makes one forget about the consumerist abomination this holiday has morphed into over the years.

I’d like to share just one little slice of this most recent season’s occurrences—just one typical day in a three-week period of madness that stretches from Thanksgiving until about mid-December.

First, the basics: In one day, my assistant and I will usually deliver 19–20 trees over about a nine-hour shift. We get a short break at midday to inhale some food in 20 minutes, and then we’re back on the road. If we’re lucky, a delivery stop can be completed in under five minutes, though they normally take a bit longer. In between tree deliveries, we also drop off poinsettias, garlands, wreaths and even our usual year-round landscaping goods. Some of our older customers use us as temporary labor, asking us to move a heavy sofa or table in the name of fitting the tree into a living room. We’re often asked to fill the tree with water after delivery if the customer isn’t comfortable bending low. We’ve even been tasked with hanging wreaths, plugging in extension cords for lights and removing small appliances from difficult packaging.

So, this was an average day in the season, with perfect driving weather and normal traffic. How did this turn into a day that taxed my sanity to the breaking point?

Do you remember Apollo 13? Yes, it was dramatized as a movie with Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon. You remember the film, or at least the trailer, where Hanks looks into the camera and says, “Houston, we have a problem.” (The actual quote from Commander Jim Lovell was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” though this is nitpicking an otherwise great film.)

What I remember most about the story of these wayward astronauts came from a PBS documentary that explained how NASA had prepared for almost every eventuality and trained the crew for specific failures of hardware. Yet it was a series of failures in the command module, each not a major problem on its own, that led to near-catastrophe in outer space.

Much as the Apollo 13 astronauts were the victims of a combination of a string of technical failures, my day was to become one of those shining examples, where a group of individual instances, by themselves easily handled, came together to result in my driving a delivery truck down an unlit road through dense woods after dark.

The day started off great. I awoke on time, enjoyed my cups of coffee, browsed the Internet before I hopped into the shower, made my breakfast (second breakfast, actually; I’m a Hobbit) and headed to work. The morning air was crisp and cool, so I made sure to put on my long underwear before heading out. I got to work to find the delivery truck loaded with the first batch of Christmas trees to go out, my delivery partner ready to go.

I’ve had the honor of delivering Christmas trees with members of the same family for the last six years; first, with my current partner’s brother (who passed away last year), then their nephew and now my present assistant, stepping in to fill his familial role. All was not well, though: He had been fighting a cold for a few days, and I was very concerned about getting sick. After all, I got to be stuck in an enclosed space with him for most of the day, while he coughed and sniffled. I caught what he had last year, and was sick from Christmas Eve until two weeks after New Year’s.

So, thankfully, our first delivery was right near his doctor’s office; he was able to run in and get them to send over an order of antibiotics and cough medicine that his wife would pick up later in the day. I felt glad that I could take just a few minutes out of the work day to assist him. This was actually the first gentle sheet of snow coming off of the top of a mountain, heralding an avalanche.

At our next stop, the door went unanswered, as did both contact numbers. A nanny was usually the one who received the tree; a few years back, when there was still an infant in the household, she told us that we’d need “booties,” or hygienic wraps to go around our shoes, before we’d be allowed inside. I still think of her as the “Booties Lady.” Today, she was missing, so we tossed the tree back onto the truck and headed out. It was at this stop that I noticed the overhead door on the truck was beginning to be difficult to open; more on that in a moment.

We made our way to the next stop while my phone began to ring constantly, as the homeowner and the nanny frantically played phone tag with one another and myself. As we were setting up the tree that was supposed to be last for the first circuit, my phone rang. The message was from my dad: I should call him back, but it wasn’t urgent. I was able to call back as we made our way to the second house. My parents’ rescue dog had beaten up another dog; could I watch her until Christmas while they were going to be out of town? Sure, because I don’t have anything else going on right now that pushes my sanity to its upper limits.

Driving the miles back to the second stop, around paving delays and the usual glut of red lights, we finally met up with the nanny and delivered the tree. First circuit: done. What was supposed to be a 10-minute job ended up being almost an hour when you factor in the extra back-and-forth driving.

Upon arriving back at the store, I parked the truck away from the tree lot so we could examine what was going on with the back door. I also immediately ran for the bathroom, since I’ve been focusing on keeping myself more hydrated recently, and have been making myself drink at least 50 ounces of water daily (yes, I know, the recommendation is even more; this is my baseline). Today gave me reason to think that I should maybe postpone this hydration plan until after the frantic driving season is done.

After discussing options about the wonky back door, it was decided that we could just run the truck with the door open (landscaping trucks do it all the time), running straps along the back to ease the minds of drivers behind us. The trees didn’t usually move much, except perhaps in a situation where I’d need to accelerate quickly. One scenario popped into my mind:

BREAKING NEWS: Highway 316 at Oconee Connector shut down in both directions as propane truck runs over ejected Christmas tree, collides with medical transport and tour bus and bursts into flames, releasing the dreaded Cthulu from Its slumber, causing Mark Richt to miss a bowl game and preventing 19-year-old Samantha Chestnut from Marietta from getting her hourly peppermint mocha latte with nonfat whipped topping at a nearby Starbucks. Nearby delivery truck seen with manic-looking driver shouting from window, “Use Wildroot hair cream, Charlie!!!”

We were now an hour behind, but flew through our next three stops with no problems. Still, the last two trees for the morning didn’t head out until 11:50, and we also had some poinsettias to deliver. The last tree stop for the morning was on a new road in a subdivision, so our GPS navigation didn’t know about it. I ended up having to call the house for directions; again, not a big deal by itself, but it ate up precious time.

When we got back for lunch, another co-worker needed a ride to his bank and asked me if I could oblige him. I told him it was not a problem. I heated up my lunch pasta and we hit the road in my car; I ate while we were stopped at red lights. While heading to the bank, my phone went off; it was a text message from my old landlady, whom I hadn’t talked to in over a year. She and her husband had moved, and they were finally selling the house where I stayed for nine years when I lived with them on the Eastside. That’s a whole other story.

So, I had personal missives flying at me, work to perform, pasta to eat. I managed to juggle each one separately and not lose focus on the big picture. We made it back to the store OK, and the delivery truck was gone! With little notice, my boss had taken the truck to deliver other poinsettias. Glad I ate my lunch in my own car while stopped in traffic. We busied ourselves around the store until he returned.

After about a half-hour, I was paged to the parking lot, so I made my way there. At least the afternoon’s trees were set out and waiting for us; we wouldn’t have to find them in the mass of sold trees that had already been set up, awaiting their delivery date. The address tickets indicating tree stops and order were nowhere to be found, and my boss, the last one to use the truck, was gone again. I poked around the front office and did not see anything that indicated a “first afternoon circuit,” so I grabbed the second set and we headed out at just about 2 p.m., 11 trees at nine stops to make.

The afternoon routes were a mess, especially when I found the first set of addresses hiding under a sheet of paper in the front office. The only things that saved us were customers answering their phones and a number of close, easy-to-find addresses. My bladder kept swelling as I kept chugging water, and at each stop back to the store, I had to sprint to the back of the building where the restrooms were.

By 5:45, we had loaded up the last two trees in the dim of the floodlights and headed out into the great wilderness that is northwestern Athens-Clarke County. The penultimate address was on an unlit street, and it featured a driveway with a turnaround; a car was blocking its topmost segment. I had to back into the drive, arriving at a spot very near the front door to the house. The homeowner popped out and asked me to back up on the other side of the driveway, which I politely refused to do, given the steep grade and the lack of illumination. We walked the heavy 11-footer across the backyard and into their house, and quickly scooted away.

The last stop was waaay out past Tallassee Road, and we drove there and back in the dark. It was another blissfully quick delivery, and while the customer was happy to see us, we were happy to be finished. Now, we still had a roughly 15–20-minute drive back to the store. While I drove back, my vision began to blur as headlights from cars in the opposite lane kept temporarily blinding me; I navigated the dogged but trusty delivery truck down the windy, forested roads until we reached civilization—or at least a Golden Pantry. Here, we still had about five more minutes of driving left, and the brake lights in front of us were beginning to increase steadily.

Somehow, through a combination of experience, perseverance and luck, I made it back to the store and back home, an hour later than scheduled. The store was dark when we got back; everyone else except the managers were long gone. It was almost 90 minutes after I was scheduled to be done for the day, my tummy was a’rumbling, and I was so tired that I probably shouldn’t have been driving. But dagnabbit, I made it. I’m now sitting at my laptop, drinking cooled chamomile, reflecting on another hectic day of delivering Christmas trees. Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.