After failing to complete the snowy gauntlet against our big brothers, Nicholas and I were itching for a wintery win in the Martin household. Fetching the family Christmas tree the following year offered the perfect opportunity to show how capable we were — and to give Mom a much-needed break.

The holiday season wasn’t exactly a relaxing time of year for her. Being the mother of eight children meant eight different wish lists to coordinate, eight different Christmas concert costumes to cobble together and eight hyperactive kids hopped up on cookies and cocoa.

By volunteering to look after the tree, we aimed to take at least one item off her absurdly long to-do list. 

Thankfully, there were plenty of evergreen candidates in the woods surrounding our home. So one cold December morning, we grabbed a flimsy handsaw from the shed and struck out in search of the perfect tree.

We trudged for hours through deep snow, dismissing tree after tree that failed to meet the ridiculously high standards we had set for ourselves. We were determined to find the biggest and best prize for Mom. 

And then, like a frigid mirage, it appeared before us. It was a gorgeous spruce, deep in the forest, many kilometres from our house. This was it. This was the tree we were bringing home.

Although the tree was undeniably awesome, we did notice a couple minor flaws upon closer inspection. For starters, it was huge. Way too huge to fit inside our living room. Meanwhile, there was a sizable gap in the branches towards the top of the tree, creating a slight bald patch in the otherwise perfect Tannenbaum. 

Nevertheless, we knew this was the one we wanted. So we came up with what we thought was a creative solution to both the size issue and the missing branches. We would simply lop off the top of the tree and bring home the bottom portion, where the boughs were thick and full. 

Of course, as you might imagine, once we had sawed off the nice, tapered top, we were left with something that was very square. But we had come too far to turn back now, so we gathered up our Christmas cube and started the long journey home.

To be honest, I don’t think either of us appreciated just how far we had travelled on our quest. The journey involved dragging the colossal coniferous out of the bush, up the side a cliff, through two farmers’ field, across the highway and down the gravel road leading to our house. 

By the time we got home, our legs had turned to jelly and our backs ached. And the tree? It was completely caked in mud. 

Not wanting to bring a filthy tree into the house, we proceeded to douse it with buckets of water. Once satisfied that we had removed most of the mud, we popped inside for some macaroni and hot dogs to recover the strength we’d need to bully the tree through the back door.

With the rest of the family away Christmas shopping, it was up to me and Nicholas to get the tree set up. Brute strength forced it inside. And it was only then that we truly appreciated how gargantuan it was, forcing us to push the furniture to the edges of the living room to make room for our festive monstrosity. 

And then, as we wrestled to get the tree into position, something … unexpected happened.

Apparently, all that water we drenched the tree with earlier had frozen onto it while we ate lunch, encrusting the branches in ice. Once inside the warm house, basic science took over and all that ice started to melt. 

Cold, dirty water rained down from the branches like a mid-December monsoon. Nicholas and I scrambled to grab towels and sop up the worst of it. But in the end, we might as well have taken a fire hose to the place. 

When mom returned that evening, she was in for quite a sight. Her flooded living room was now dominated by an obscenely large — and square — Christmas tree dripping in mud. 

Not unfairly, it would mark the one and only year Nicholas and I were permitted to fetch the family tree.

Our holiday misadventure was a good example of overkill. There were a hundred perfectly good trees we could have picked much closer to home. But nope, we were obsessed with bringing back the perfect tree and went way overboard to find it. 

And as we learned the hard way, bigger isn’t always better. As Mom’s soggy living room showed, overkill often has the opposite effect we want, creating more problems than it addresses. 

Dredging up every mistake a friend has made so you can win an argument can ruin the relationship. Trying to go cold turkey can make it harder to quit smoking than gradually cutting back. And spending tonnes of cash on camping gear you’ll only use a couple times a year is an unnecessary hit to your wallet when you can simply borrow your neighbour’s tent and sleeping bag.

I’m still guilty of going overboard sometimes. For example, after my cancer diagnosis, I was keen to go scorched earth on the disease, throwing everything we had at it. Thankfully, my doctors understood the importance of strategic restraint better than I did. 

Because although it was certainly an aggressive treatment, they knew when to pump the brakes, dialling back my chemo if my blood counts got too low or reminding me to go slow with my exercises.

Because there’s a fine line between tackling a challenge with gusto and overdoing things altogether. And whether you’re facing a major life crisis or trying to fit a Christmas tree into your living room, right-sizing your solution is crucial.

Avoiding holiday overkill

If you celebrate Christmas, the holidays don’t need to be as arduous as the pursuit Nicholas and I undertook for the perfect tree. We often break our backs trying to manufacture an Instagram-worthy celebration, to the point where we forget what the holidays should be about: spending quality time with family and friends. 

Believe it or not, the world will keep spinning if the turkey is a bit dry. And odds are your guests would rather get the chance to catch up with you than to have you squirrelled away in the kitchen trying to make the perfect tiramisu ice cream cake. 

Remember that the dinners, the trees, the decorations and the gifts are all secondary to the chance to be with the people we love. And keeping it simple can be the key to a more relaxing and meaningful holiday season. 

So go ahead and pour your friend a glass of mediocre wine, plug in your crooked tree, order a pizza and don’t be afraid to enjoy a perfectly imperfect celebration.

Here are a few ideas on simplifying your holidays:

Make a no-gift pact — Make an agreement with friends and family to not exchange presents this year. 

Celebrate Christmas in July — If the consumer insanity and endless socializing associated with December has you stressing out, move your family celebrations to another month without the chaos.

Cut back — Throw a potluck dinner instead of orchestrating a massive and time-consuming feast. And if you’re determined to exchange gifts, set strict price limits or draw names to reduce the number of presents you need to buy.

Next: Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes