So That's What Girls' Night Is
It was a place where few ordinary mortal men have ventured and returned to tell the tale.
I’m speaking, of course, of the “Girls’ Night Out” at Wednesday evening’s opening of the 14th annual Festival of Trees in the basement of the Carolina Hotel.
More than 250 items were up for bid, all to benefit the outstanding labors of the Sandhills Children’s Center, including more than 90 lavishly decorated artificial Christmas trees fitted out in a variety of themes to suit every taste.
Or so I’d always heard tell, having never actually attended the big event in question, which many — including my own ladywife — regard as a natural start to the holiday season.
To this end, purely in interest of journalistic inquiry and domestic tranquillity, I swallowed my keen aversion to large crowds of any sort and slipped almost undetected into the festival.
I went under the cover of my friend Jean’s girlpack from work, a group of spunky nurses and therapists from St. Joseph of the Pines — Angie, two Cindys, a couple of Marys, and a Shelby. I’d met the ladies an hour before the gala at a local Mexican cantina, whereupon they briefed me on the basic social protocols of Girls’ Night Out.
“Essentially on a girls’ night out,” explained Angie, “we talk a lot about sex. Women love to talk about sex on girls’ night out. But tonight, since it’s almost Christmastime, we’ll mainly talk about Christmas stuff. The Festival of Trees gives us nice gift and decorating ideas and gets us in the mood.”
“For sex?” I asked, since she had raised the subject.
“No, turnip brain, for shopping,” said one of the spunky nurses — a Mary, I think. Or maybe a Cindy.
“So what do guys talk about on a guys’ night out?” wondered Angie, who grew up in Germany, where sex is fairly commonplace on TV.
“Football and cheese fries, mostly,” I admitted, “as in — ‘Hey, miss, could we get some more cheese fries over here? The second half kickoff is about to happen.’”
“That’s it?” asked my pal Jean, who risked the wrath of her gal pals to bring me to my first, and probably final, Girls’ Night Out.
“Pretty much,” I admitted, “although sometimes we do discuss effective bilateral strategies to reduce the trade imbalance among pre-industrial, sub-Saharan emerging economies. Or sometimes which cheerleader we’d like to date if we weren’t old married guys watching football with cheese fries.”
This drew a blank and not entirely warm-and-fuzzy holiday stare from the spunky nurses and therapists, one of whom mentioned that she found the Cialis commercial where two people are sitting outside in matching bathtubs utterly absurd. I finished my cheese quesadilla in silence, trying to blend in with the guacamole dip.
At the door to the festival, where a tide of happy, well-dressed women was flowing into the vast basement hall of the Carolina Hotel like a far more controlled version of Filene’s Basement’s annual stampede on wedding dresses, a nice lady named Bonnie presented me with a free gift of something wrapped in an attractive package.
“What’s this?” I asked, touched by her thoughtful seasonal gesture.
“Coupons,” she explained with the Pepsodent smile. “But I suppose you really don’t want coupons. They’re mostly for women.” And with that, she politely took them back.
“On the contrary, I’d like some free coupons,” I protested, remembering that Christmas is just around the corner and I have no idea what to get my bride, especially if I can get something off on it.
“Oh, really?” she said doubtfully. “When was the last time you used a coupon to buy anything?”
I thought for a moment but drew a complete blank, save for a free chicken sandwich my game stub entitled me to at last week’s college football game after my team scored 24 points.
Of course, I shared this experience with 52,000 other people sitting in the seats around me. And, technically speaking, it wasn’t a coupon, per se — more like just a free chicken sandwich.
“See what I mean?” she said with a laugh. “Coupons are wasted on you. But don’t feel bad. They are on most men except for my husband. He loves coupons.”
I was prepared to take umbrage at such a sweeping gender generalization, her broad dismissal of male coupon appreciation abilities, but then I noticed there was free cake and holiday goodies and started that way for some chocolate chip cookies.
Last year, unbeknownst to me, because she has a rich and full secret female life all her own, my wife baked her famous ganache chocolate cake for 200 people at the Festival of Trees, and somehow managed to whisk it out of the house before I even had the chance to stick my little finger in the icing. What I didn’t know, I suppose she figured, couldn’t hurt her ganache cake, which more or less seems to be the prevailing attitude of most married gals on a Girls’ Night Out.
A Fundraising Dynamo
As I set off down the first aisle of decorated trees wondering if one is born with a Christmas-tree-decorating gene or somehow later acquires it, it suddenly struck me that this annual fundraising dynamo — netting more than $200,000 for one of the worthiest organizations around — or at least the Girls’ Night Out portion of it, ingeniously combines three things most women across the ages have found impossible to resist: craft-making, Christmas shopping, and cheap Rusty Sleighs and Appletinis.
I know, I know. That’s a sweeping gender generalization, too. But before you hurl a decorative pine cone at my head (or worse, report me to my wife), consider that this human tide of happy holiday hormones on opening night was moving so doggone slowly, taking note of every min-ute, detailed decorative touch and artful display, I felt Santa might actually (or I’d miss the kickoff with the boys) appear before I finished my tour of the premises.
That said, the Christmas trees one encounters at the Festival of Trees are impressively creative affairs.
My favorite displays on Aisle 1 were a “Clown Tree” that featured more than 200 vintage clowns donated by a lady from Aberdeen; my pal Jean’s impressive “Holly and Ivy” tree surrounded by distinctive holly-themed pottery; and a tree that featured what looked like a bubbling blue bong pipe and plenty of mermaid gear.
Amid the pleasant din of happy female voices, Festival honcho Teresa Copper appeared at my elbow and explained that the nautical-themed tree was designed by someone who was either related to, or simply fond of, singer Jimmy Buffett. Silent auction bids were mounting up on all three displays.
Teresa knew some interesting tidbit about almost every tree and every design team, from the couple who attended last year’s festival and were so taken with it that they moved to the Sandhills and decided to enter their own tree, decked out with vintage Coca-Cola collectibles, to the two local female physicians, Jenifir Bruno and Shushma Patel, who cleverly snagged the interest of every guy in the house by creating a “tailgate tree” that featured a beautiful rolling toolbox filled with power tools and aged single malt scotches.
Clever ladies. They know what men really want, besides cheese fries and cheerleaders.
“Last year they did a kitchen theme that went over big,” my impromptu guide confirmed. “This year they decided to do something to excite the guys.”
“I always like to have a good bottle of expensive scotch handy when I’m using dangerous power tools,” I admitted.
“It’s all about the kids and the fundraising,” Teresa explained as we moved along, “though I have to tell you everyone is secretly trying to outdo everyone else. One year we had someone offer four Masters tickets. That sold for something like $12,000.”
“My kind of Christmas tree,” I said, wondering if I had enough in my checking account to make a respectable bid on the power tools and aged Glenlivet.
As we paused to admire each tree display, which invariably featured lots of great theme-matched loot, I remembered one of the nurses earlier in the evening talking about taking a group of residents with dementia issues to the festival. Everyone had a jolly good time, it seems, especially the resident who decided to stuff several of the auction items under her jacket.
“I think perhaps she was reliving her childhood and decided the gifts under the tree were for her,” the nurse said. “Of course, we immediately put it all back.”
Who could blame her? I knew the feeling.
Outback’s tree came complete with a barbecue for 50; Moore OnStage’s beautiful blue tree offered four prime seats to “The Nutcracker”; The Moore County Junior League’s tree came with cookbooks from fellow Junior Leagues around the country; there was a Tar Heel Tailgate Tree offering six courtside tickets to the upcoming N.C. State-UNC game; and Donna Turner’s husband gave up his impressive childhood toy soldiers and an awesome vintage Revolutionary soldier bed lamp that made me sorely wish I’d brought my checkbook.
In the end, perhaps because Girls’ Night Out proved to be more fun that Guys’ Football Night, they all put me unexpectedly in the Christmas mood and made me want to buy a tree and polish off my Christmas shopping in one fell swoop, with or without the Rusty Sleighs and free coupons.
The Festival of Trees ends Sunday with the big raffle drawing. Santa, if you’re listening, sure wish I’d bought that awesome soldier lamp.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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