Rick Mercer: As Kids, My Brother and I Stole the Perfect Christmas Tree

In this excerpt from his new book, Talking to Canadians, Rick Mercer confesses to a yuletide heist that made for an unforgettable Christmas.

Rick Mercer - The Perfect Christmas Tree IllustrationIllustration: Paul G. Hammond

The Perfect Christmas Tree

One December, when I was seven and my brother, Gilbert, was 11 and a half, we headed out alone into the woods with an axe and a saw and the goal of finding the perfect Christmas tree. Two children armed with medieval cutting tools. What could go wrong?

In our house in Middle Cove, Newfoundland, the tradition was for the tree to go up the day before Christmas Eve. This infuriated us because many people on the street would have trees up a full week before Christmas. Now, of course, people put them up way earlier than that. I have neighbours in Toronto who have their Christmas tree up and decorated on November 12, and they are Jewish.

So it must have been just before the holiday when our nagging got us the go-ahead from Dad to go find the perfect tree. And this year, we were being trusted to do it entirely on our own. And while I know now he would have been happy with whatever tangly mess we brought back, we took the challenge very seriously. So, axe in Gilbert’s hand, saw in mine, we set out for all the spots we imagined we might find a magnificent fir.

We were young, but we knew the rules. Trees could only be taken from Crown land and not near any road. Also, you should look for younger trees that are in clumps of other younger trees. That way, when you take one, you’re essentially making room for the other young trees to grow. You are not, under any circumstances, to cut down a larger mature tree and just take the top off. It’s wasteful, environmentally unfriendly and just plain wrong. We knew this because Dad had said it many times when, every year at Christmas, we would come across a large, felled tree with no top.

Of course, unsupervised, it was the very first thing we did.

We started out with the best of intentions. We were on Pine River Lane, a dirt road about a kilometre from our house that cut through multiple meadows. We were looking at the small firs that ringed the fields, but none of them looked quite good enough. Eventually we started looking at the tops of the larger, more mature trees; we could see why some jerks would go that route. The tops were perfect. We sized up a monster with an attractive tip, agreed to “never tell,” and started cutting.

It took us forever. The trunk was huge, and taking turns was suddenly the worst kind of manual labour. We didn’t have a bucksaw, just a regular wood saw—a saw more suitable for cutting down young trees. The thick branches of the mighty fir prevented us from using the axe. We tried to cut the lower limbs off to make room so we could swing at the trunk, but that was also exhausting. Halfway through the trunk, we gave up. We half killed a tree for nothing. Is it any wonder they say the brains of little boys take forever to form?

It was getting dark as we headed up Middle Cove Road. Miserable. Two saps covered in same. It was Gilbert who stopped, grabbed my arm and said, “I see it!”

“You see what?” I said.

“Right there, look. It’s perfect.”

And he was right. It was a young tree, two metres tall, standing alone. It was the classic Christmas tree. In all my years, I had never seen such a perfect one.

Perfect except for one small problem. The tree was pretty close to the road. Also, it was behind a fence, so the tree was in someone’s yard. And not just any someone. It was in the yard of Timmy Green, my best friend. The Greens had one of the largest pieces of land in Middle Cove. Their grounds were heavily landscaped, with many different types of flowering bushes and trees. They were both professionals, university professor types, in fact. I suspected that they lacked a sense of humour. That said, no sense of humour would allow them to see the lighter side of what Gilbert was about to suggest.

“It’s not even really in their yard,” he said. “It’s more by the barn. I bet they wouldn’t even notice.”

They probably wouldn’t, I agreed.

That they wouldn’t notice was magical thinking at its best. This was not even a tree that was growing wild on their property. This was a tree they had planted, on a lawn they mowed regularly. This tree had come from a nursery. When spring came, there would be a ring of daffodils at its base.

“It’s really young. The trunk is small. We can have it out of there in minutes.”

I had to admit it was a pretty good-looking tree.

The chances of our finding another one like it were slim to none.

“You stand guard,” Gilbert said.

And with that, we were over the fence and on our bellies crawling toward the target.

I lay in the snow and put their house under surveillance. I was to whistle or cough if I saw anyone coming. The lights were on, but nobody came out to investigate the sounds of a saw and a panting boy.

Within a few minutes, it fell.

“Grab the end,” Gilbert said, and we heaved it over the fence. Now we were on the road. We looked back where the tree once stood. It was glaring in its absence. How we thought for a second that it wouldn’t be missed was truly absurd. It was like a car thief thinking that the homeowner wouldn’t notice the missing Subaru because there was also a Range Rover in the driveway.

This was new territory for us. We had committed a true act of vandalism. We were vandals and juvenile delinquents.

Suddenly Gilbert’s eyes widened like saucers. “Our footprints!” he said. Sure enough, all around the base of the naked stump were footprints. Boys’ footprints. We might as well have left a signed note.

Together we climbed over the fence again. We got down on all fours and wiped away our footprints with an intensity bordering on manic.

Back out on the road, it was an adventure to get home. We had probably half a kilometre of ground to cover, and every time a car approached, we would throw ourselves into the ditch, like soldiers diving into the trenches to dodge a hand grenade.

On the walk, we covered a wide range of topics, everything from “Whose idea was this anyway?” to “Do you think we will go to jail?” to “Will the Greens be mad?” and of course “the Santa factor.”

Our arrival in our yard was greeted as a triumph. The entire family agreed that we had found the perfect tree. So perfect, in fact, that Mom and Dad agreed to put it up and decorate it that very night, a full two days early.

When we were asked, “Where did you find it?” we answered simultaneously and with great confidence. “Pine River Lane,” said Gilbert. “By the pond,” I blurted.

You’d think on the walk home we would have bothered to get our stories straight.

In any event, when the tree was lit and decorated, Mom declared, as she did every year, that this was the best tree yet. For the first time, she was not lying.

Rick Mercer - The Perfect Christmas TreeTalking to Canadians, by Rick Mercer

“The entire house reeked of fir and guilt.”

Over the next day, we began to relax. Nobody came around and asked questions. No SWAT team surrounded the house. We started to get comfortable with the idea that we had pulled off the perfect crime. We still avoided walking past the Greens’ house in case someone was watching over the stump. I avoided calling Timmy to go sliding because the hill was on the Greens’ property. All of the children in the neighbourhood were free to toboggan on their hill. Sometimes Mrs. Green would make hot chocolate for everyone. The guilt was killing me.

The plan was to avoid the Greens altogether until perhaps the new year. So it came as a complete shock when Gilbert and I marched into the house after dinner on Christmas Eve and found John and Jane Green in our living room with our parents, drinking tea.

I had known the Greens my entire life, but never before, to my knowledge, had Timmy’s parents been in our living room. And yet here they were, on the couch, next to the perfect Christmas tree.

“Look who popped by,” said Dad.

“Hello,” I said, although no real sound came out.

And then the most astounding thing happened. Mrs. Green turned back to my parents and continued with the conversation they’d clearly been having before we came in.

It was small talk.

Gilbert and I sank to the floor looking at each other with bewilderment while the adults continued to have a pleasant conversation about nothing in particular.

Twenty minutes later, my heart rate was approaching normal when Mr. Green, on standing and getting ready to leave, suddenly turned the conversation to theft. “Have you ever had anyone cut any trees off your land, Ken?” he asked. “Someone took a tree by our barn this week, practically in broad daylight.”

My mother and father reacted to this news the way someone would react if they found out an axe murderer had moved in next door.

“In your garden?” Mom said, aghast. “Can you believe it.”

“Brazen,” Dad said.

“Who in God’s name would do that?” Mom asked.

I thought I was going to die. “They have to know,” I thought. This was an elaborate torture. The tree was literally under their noses. The entire house reeked of fir and guilt. Of course they knew it was us.

It dawned on me that I had never, ever been in this much trouble before. I was about to speak when my eyes caught those of my brother. As he reached up to scratch his neck, he ever so subtly made the universal symbol for “do not say a word,” his index finger crossing his windpipe like a knife.

And suddenly the Greens were reaching for their coats.

“Well, that was nice. Thanks for the tea,” said one of them.

“Come again,” said Dad. “Don’t be strangers.”

“Merry Christmas,” said the Greens directly to my brother and me. And as if they meant it, “Hope Santa finds you.”

“You too,” I croaked. Was my voice choosing now to change?

“Lovely tree,” said Mr. Green.

“Isn’t it,” said his wife.

And then they were gone. And Mom and Dad were taking the empty cups to the kitchen.

I was hyperventilating on the floor, but Gilbert threw himself on the sofa with total confidence. Cool. Collected.

“Told ya,” he said. “They didn’t suspect a thing.”

To this day I have no idea whether they knew it was us who cut down the bloody thing. If they did, why did they remain silent? Maybe they thought it better to just let the guilt punish us. Or maybe, because of their decency, they never considered in a million years that the tree from their land was the one standing in our house with an angel on top.

I do know that many times over the years I’ve considered confessing to them. They still live down the street in the same house.

In our defence, all I can say is that we never took a tree on anyone else’s property ever again. My parents were legitimately horrified when the truth came out in our house many decades later. They were shocked to learn they had raised history’s greatest monsters and didn’t know it. And they couldn’t believe we had both sat there in the room with the Greens while the tree was discussed and we didn’t crack.

“Terrible,” Mom said. “Although it was a nice tree.”

If you are reading this, John and Jane, my abject apologies. I’ll drop off a sapling in the spring.

Excerpted from Talking to Canadians, by Rick Mercer. Copyright © 2021, Rick Mercer. Published by Doubleday Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Next, check out the best places to spend Christmas in Canada.

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