ON CHRISTMAS TREES
This is a bit late, but some thoughts on the merit of a real Christmas tree.
December 14, 2003
We set up our Christmas tree yesterday. There’s something wonderful about bringing a tree into your home, a real tree, whether it’s grown on a farm or cut by hand and drug through the snow down from the mountain, as long as it’s real. Lisa and I both agree that life is too short to waste Christmas with an artificial tree. We picked out our tree, a Fraser fir, earlier in the week from the dozens stacked in concrete block bins at the new Lowes in Searcy. Julia Rose, three and a half, was excited about the tree, knowing something now since she’s been talking about Christmas traditions at her day care, and Stella, one and a half, was excited and happy because she’s always excited and happy. They don’t know the real beauty of going out in the woods and selecting a tree, not yet, and maybe never, but Julia Rose knew the one we picked out was riding on the roof of the car, and I let her smell the evergreen smell on my hands from hauling the tree to the car and tying it down, and she liked the smell.
When we lived in Denver we started a family tradition, short lived, of driving into mountains and picking a tree off the national forest and cutting it and bringing it home. We went with our friends, the Marches, Randy and Jeanie, and their children, Deanna, and Hannah. It was an all day affair since first, there was the ski traffic bogging down the corridors into the mountains, and second, there was the hunt for the tree, which I discovered was not as easy as I had imagined.
On December 10, 1997, we drove up to Fraser, Colorado, with the Marches, bought our permits and headed into the national forest and the designated tree cutting area on snow-packed roads. It was a beautiful clear winter day with a deep blue Colorado sky that felt like a John Denver song. We found a parking area and unloaded. Randy and I traipsed off into the woods on snowshoes while Jeanie and Lisa stayed near the car with Hannah and Deanna, watching the girls sled in the snow.
Randy suggested we try a drainage with southern exposure, since he reasoned that trees needed good water and sunshine to grow big and full. It was tough going without a trail. The snow was about three feet deep and there were deadfalls and creeks to cross. We both wanted a spruce tree because of the classic Christmas tree shape and the relatively lower density of the foliage which allowed for more ornaments. We stopped often to look over trees and talk them over. Most of the trees we could reject pretty quickly, because they tended to grow in clumps of two or three, so what initially looked like a perfectly shaped tree with a nice form usually ended up two trees with massive bare spots where the second trunk had shaded out the other.
Randy discussed each tree’s shape and health, falling just short of assigning it human characteristics. He thought hard about how the tree would contribute to the Christmas experience in the home–what sort of mood it would convey. Randy finally picked out a tree close to twenty feet tall, which fell just under the Forest Service’s length requirements. The Marches have a front room with a vaulted ceiling and place their tree next to a staircase and an upper level landing, which aids considerably in decorating such a tree. I chose one closer to fifteen feet tall, way too tall for our 9 foot ceilings, but Randy’s tree had given me a bad case of envy. Randy told me, repeatedly, with just a hint of good-natured teasing, that it was a tree he’d be proud to have in his home. We carried the two trees out of the woods, breaking a new trail uphill in the snow, each of us holding a tip in one hand and a base in the other to distribute the weight, walking fifteen to twenty paces at a time before we would have to stop and catch our breath. When we got back to the Suburban we had a picnic lunch on the tailgate and drank hot chocolate heated over backpacking stoves. Other tree hunters pulled into the parking area, unloaded, disappeared into the woods and came back ten minutes later with a tree Randy wouldn’t have in his home.
Our last winter in Denver, Lisa and I, Julia Rose and the dogs went up by ourselves and cut a tree from a clear-cut meadow below Georgia Pass, a few miles from Jefferson, overlooking South Park. It was a windy cold day, though clear and sunny. Julia Rose was only six months old and tiny. The snow suit we dressed her in swallowed her up. I scouted the trees from the car, driving slowly and stopping in the road every so often to run over and check out possible trees. When I finally found one it was several hundred yards from the road. I went back to the Blazer and got Lisa and Julia Rose. We hiked over and Lisa gave it the nod of approval. We took turns taking pictures with Julia Rose and the dogs beside the tree, and then Lisa took Julia Rose back to the car so she wouldn’t get too cold. After I cut the tree down and hauled it back to the car, I boiled water on the stove and made tea and hot chocolate, then we picnicked in the car and listened to the Broncos waste the New Orleans Saints over the radio.
My family always bought our trees when I was growing up, real spruce and firs from somewhere north or west, since the only trees we could cut in Mississippi were cedars. But the year Lisa and I got married my parents hadn’t planned to put up a tree at Christmas. We were to be married on the 17th of December, and planned to meet my family for Christmas at my brother’s house in Georgia a week later. But my mother was sad that they wouldn’t have a tree, so one day when she was at work my father walked across the pasture behind their house and cut down a cedar and dragged it home. When my mom got home from work that afternoon, she found the tree set up in the living room and decorated with lights. The funny thing was that with the excitement of the wedding, neither of my parents mentioned it. I only found out years later, after my father’s death, watching some of my mother’s homemade videotapes. My father videotaped the tree he had cut down and set up for my mother, simply because he didn’t want her to go a Christmas without a tree in her home.
Lisa and I have always collected Christmas ornaments whenever we travel, and our tree features an eclectic mix of ornaments, some cheap and touristy, some true art, but all meaningful. As Lisa always says, we get to take our souvenirs out once a year, enjoy the memories, and we never have to dust them. Julia Rose was big enough to help decorate the tree this year, although she favored a single lower branch that stuck out a bit farther than the others. Occasionally Lisa or I would redistribute Julia Rose’s ornaments higher. Surprisingly, Stella didn’t tear the tree down as we’d feared. But she does love to stand beside it and touch the ornaments.
Our first ornaments were glass ornaments from Europe that Lisa began to collect after she graduated from college and began working. These were mostly fruit and vegetable ornaments that look a lot classier than just the name suggests. The first ornament I picked out was a chili pepper wearing a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses that we found in Terlingua, Texas on our way home from a camping trip to Big Bend National Park, not long before I proposed to her. We have a variety of Santa Clauses to commemorate special occasions and activities. There’s the Santa holding a diploma Lisa bought me to celebrate the completion of my Ph.D., the Santa in a lighthouse we bought on our trip to Boston, Santa riding a dolphin Lisa bought on a business trip to Norfolk, Virginia, and then there’s fishing Santa, canoeing Santa, and kayaking Santa. To remember our time in Colorado there’s the American Indian angel, a Pikes Peak ornament, and a clay colored ball with American Indian designs from our trip to Mesa Verde. On her various business trips conducting drug studies Lisa brought back a Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, a Salt Lake City Olympics commemorative ornament, a quarter face moon from New Orleans, and from Pittsburg, a Steelers ornament for me and a stained glass star from Bethlehem Pennsylvania for her. We bought a painted egg on our honeymoon in Dahlonegha, Georgia, a painted gourd with a roadrunner design in Oklahoma, and a moose and an eagle ornament in Alaska. To celebrate Denver winning two Super Bowls while we lived there we have a Broncos ornament and a John Elway figure. When we were married we received two ornaments: one a wedding cake and one of a couple driving away in a car decorated with a Just Married sign and tin cans. For our dogs, we have an ornament that offers one of the better prayers I can think of: “Please God, make me the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” And for our cats, some who have passed away,we have a kitty cat angel. (For our living cats, now, we have a live tree, with ornaments to bat and branches to climb.)
Our tree gets heavier every year. Heavier literally with more ornaments, and figuratively with more memories. Julia Rose and Stella are adding to the weight on the tree. Each girl gets a new ornament from her grandmother each year. And there are the hand made jeweled ornaments that Lisa’s aunt Mary Catherine made when Lisa was a little girl, which were divided among the family after she died. There has been a glass winged archangel blowing a trumpet on the tree for my father every Christmas since 1996. There is a missing angel for Lisa’s father, because she hasn’t been able to find the right one yet. There are four angels on the tree now for Hayden, Julia Rose’s twin, one for each Christmas that he hasn’t been with us, and for Jackson, Stella’s twin, we now have two crosses to commemorate each Christmas since his death. The ornaments help remind us that when we look at our two daughters, as perfect as that image should be, it will always be incomplete. It’s a weight that no tree should be expected to bear.