The skin-crawling experience actually reminded me what Christmas is all about.

By Kimberly Lew
Element5 Digital on Unsplash

“You might want to take a look at this,” my boyfriend Josh said, slowly backing away from our Christmas tree.

This was not the sort of nervous statement I wanted to hear as I prepared to host Josh’s mom for a Christmas Eve dinner in our apartment. I especially didn’t want to hear that anything could be wrong with our six-foot-tall real Fraser Fir tree, which cost me $85 to buy and have delivered to our Brooklyn apartment.

We had just returned from running out for some last ingredients for dinner, and I had asked Josh to water the tree. He had barely stuck his head under the branches before he remarked that there was a bug down there. Then he called me over.

I hesitantly approached the tree and bent down. Immediately, I saw a small bug on the floor, a fraction of an inch wide, but distinct. It had a dark green oblong lower body with longer arms in front, reminiscent of a praying mantis.

Then I saw another one on a present. And then I saw there were several, on a few different presents. As I pulled away from my squatted position by the tree, I saw them around the bottom, crawling over wrapping paper, running along the edges of the floorboards. When I stood up, I saw that they had gotten on the curtains, clinging to the fabric that waved as the steam of the nearby radiator hissed at them. They were along our beige walls, leisurely strolling in the crevices of our windowsill.

We were infested.

With images of bugs dancing in my head, I sat down on the couch and immediately burst into tears. Having grown up in Hawaii, where I was used to swatting at fat mosquitoes and seeing cockroaches scuttle across street-lamp lit sidewalks, I was not afraid of bugs, but this unexpected (though common) colonization of our tree was more than I could take.

The truth of the matter was that the tree was so much more than just an apartment decoration. This was our first Christmas in the first apartment I had ever shared with a boyfriend. To me, this Christmas tree was a sign of the home we were building together and the new traditions we were creating as a couple.

My birthday also falls on Christmas, so I always liked going out of my way to celebrate the season. Just a week earlier, we had hosted a holiday party with a big group of our friends, where people brought us ornaments to decorate the tree for this year and the years to come.

Now the ornaments were nestled among countless insects.

Josh declared he was going to the kitchen for a drink, choosing to drown his hatred of bugs with some whiskey. I continued to blubber on the couch as he reemerged with the bottle and his mom on the other end of the phone. Through my tears, I texted our apartment building’s super and got no response. Josh eventually got the number for an exterminator named Al, who told me that paying him to come out would be a waste.

“Just get rid of the tree,” he said. “You get rid of the tree, you get rid of the bugs.”

Josh’s mom came over with Josh’s friend, ready to do some damage control. We picked off the ornaments we’d been gifted by friends but accepted that the lights and garland were collateral damage. The guys wrapped the tree in trash bags and hauled it out. As they dragged it down the hallway, an empty egg sac fell from one of the openings in the plastic covering. We deducted that the insects had Trojan Horsed into our apartment nestled in the sac, and the whole thing had hatched with the help of our unseasonably warm weather and the proximity to the radiator.

I went to town with a can of bug spray and wads of paper towels, gathering up as many bugs as I could in one swipe. (If you're thinking, "that's illegal," don't worry—it's an urban legend that killing a praying mantis is illegal.) Josh’s mom and I shook out the remaining presents and packed them up in extra trash bags. Josh and I then packed bags to stay at Josh’s mom’s home for the night.

On our way home, Josh’s mom made a pit stop at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. We piled out of the car and into the restaurant. Unsurprisingly, we were the only ones there.

We ordered hot dogs and sat at the windows. It was dark and gray outside by then, the only light the neon of the Nathan’s sign. I thought about the dinner I had planned to make that night, now gone to waste. I also thought about the lights on the tree, now dim and lying in depths of our building’s basement, covered in trash bags.

But, while I was still a bit teary-eyed, I was thankful. I was glad that I had people who were like family, who had helped me out when I needed it most. I was grateful that I was surrounded by people I loved. This wasn’t the kind of Christmas I had known or the Christmas I had aspired to, but it was meaningful because it was a memory that we all now shared and survived together. It was a nice reminder that it’s the people that truly make the holidays—not just the trappings that come with the tree.

That being said, as far as traditions go, we’ll be putting up a fake tree for the foreseeable future.