Thanksgiving weekend is a busy time for most folks. Moms rise early on Black Friday to join the throngs for shopping and discovering bargains. Dads might finish up raking the last of the leaves or hauling away the trash from the Thanksgiving crowd that invaded the house. Also included in the to-do list is the decorating of the house, both inside and out, with Christmas lights and other things. I made the trip to our basement and retrieved our tree: a glorious, seven-foot “fake” spruce. It weighed a ton, and as I strained every muscle in my body lugging the thing to the den, earlier days when a Christmas tree was something special came to mind.
I grew up in the countryside of East Tennessee. Although my family didn’t live on a farm, our three acres were surrounded by hay fields and pastures. In the 1950’s and 60’s, most families used live Christmas trees. Sure, some had artificial ones that were metallic. A spinning wheel with four different colors lighted the tree. Other families got their own trees. However, no one visited a Christmas tree farm to find the right one. Neither did they put trees up a month before the big day; real trees become a fire hazard when they are in a house so long. No, some time in mid-December, we bundled up and left the house armed with a saw and maybe an axe.
Our walk wasn’t too far from our house, but most year’s the winds cut across those open fields enough to chill us to the bone. We’d trek over acres of pastures in search for the perfect tree. Those evergreens were plentiful, and our search was limited only by the amount of daylight left and the numbness of our feet and hands. Eventually, we spied the right tree. It was usually no more than six feet tall, but the limbs were strong and full. That tree over which we were so excited was nothing more than a cedar tree in the middle of a cow pasture.
By the time we dragged the tree back to the house, our hands and clothes were covered with sap. It was nearly impossible to get that gooey liquid, and sometimes it took a couple of days before the stuff wore off. Our next job was to cut the trunk straight and level so that the tree would fit into the stand without tipping over. More sap came pouring, but before long the tree was secure in the stand and ready to be taken to its new home, the living room.
Decorating that tree was a family project. Big, teardrop-shaped lights were wound around the tree. Next, we carefully removed an eclectic collection of ornaments, many of them more than twenty-five years old, from boxes and placed them on the tree. Mother supervised the hanging of them and made sure each was placed securely on the tree. She didn’t allow two on the same limb. Strands of blue and silver beads were draped upon the tree, and some years we hung strings of popcorn as well. Silver icicles were placed one at a time upon the tree limbs. Finally, a metallic star with a yellow light inside was scrunched onto top spire of the tree. Three boys and a mother had decorated the tree. My dad sat in his favorite chair and nodded his approval of the process.
The unveiling of the tree was a wonderful ceremony. My older brother found the plug at the end of the strands of lights. Then all the lights in the house were turned off. When the plug was inserted, wondrous colors were emitted from that tree. The icicles accented the lights and softened the reds, yellows, greens, and blues. Some years our family played Christmas carols on an old stereo, and we all sat and looked at the tree for a long time. It was even prettier from the outside because nighttime in the country was pitch black, and a lighted Christmas tree cut through that dark like a lighthouse.
When I was thirteen, my dad died, and Christmas time always had a hole, yet my older brother took on the job of giving an approving nod. Mother was around for Christmas for years, but she passed when I’d become an adult with my own family, as did my older brother. I miss them all on Christmas Day, but not as when it’s time to decorate the tree. The sweet, wafting scent of a cedar tree brings family members and childhood racing back to me.
Time has zipped by. My own children are grown and living their lives in other cities. The tree decorating is left to my wife Amy and me. The artificial tree is perfectly shaped, and its only scent is that of plastic. Sometimes the process feels more like a chore than a special occasion. Much of the fun has gone from task. I never was one to stalk rabbits, squirrels, birds, or deer. However, some of my fondest memories of youth come from my hunting trips for Christmas trees.