Oh Christmas tree

Story by Benita Drew

Photo provided by Benita Drew

How lovely are thy branches drenched in store-bought silver-strand icicles, covered in kid-craft construction paper ornaments loaded with glitter and homemade knitted angels from years past with a cockeyed star perched precariously on top.​

While many of us have traditions we’ve let slide through the years, the one I miss the most is the Christmas tree search. I don’t mean for the store-bought tree in a box that can be erected the day after Halloween with no repercussions (what happened to turkey and football day?). I don’t even mean for the perfectly shaped-from-years-of-trimming-and-irrigation tree picked from rows of other perfect trees spaced evenly apart.

I mean THE tree.

Every year of my youth, Dad took on one key Christmas duty: obtaining the tree with my sisters and me. One week before Christmas, or thereabouts, we’d load up in his old Ford, chainsaw in back, and set off to a nearby piece of property. Sometimes it was a family member’s or friend’s forested property, sometimes our own.

We’d pull up, jump out of the truck eager to find that perfect tree, and take off. Sometimes Dad had been eyeballing that tree all year, waiting for the perfect time to harvest it — just enough time to keep it green(ish) until Christmas day. But he’d still let us wander around in case we found a better one.

Invariably, the ones in the fence rows looked the best but were the most disappointing once out of the fence. The trees were deceptively tall, while they were outside, as well. Dad would stand beside them, arm stretched skyward, and give us a lesson every year about ceiling heights. How many five-year-olds know that the standard ceiling is eight feet tall? Usually, we’d wander around and just couldn’t find a more perfect tree, so the 11-foot tree went home with us. Eight feet of it went inside and the rest to the burn pile.

One year, Dad had had a rough day at the farm but he’d already said he’d take me out to get the tree. I was eight or so and full of energy and excitement. Years later looking back, I realized his intent when he gave me the chore of carrying the chainsaw: to make it a shorter trip. This was no small task. Dad believed in owning the largest piece of equipment he could get so it’d do any job he might run across. But I was determined to make Dad proud by carrying the chainsaw without complaint or visible struggle. It was an extra-long trek through the woods that year. Guess his plan backfired, but he was proud.

Once the tree was home, a bucket was cleaned out and large-enough rocks located to fill the space around the tree in the bucket. The tree was then placed in the house always against the wall. For one, we didn’t have space for a tree in the middle of a room but, also, there was inevitably a bare side to the tree that needed to be hidden.

When my own children were small, I insisted we get our own live tree. My husband, not so fond of this tree search adventure but agreeable to what I wanted, took us out to find a tree. We did come home with a tree. It was scragglier than I really wanted, but I loaded it with ornaments, bare spot to the wall, as tradition goes. All was well until Christmas Eve when we hear a loud crash. It might have been a tad barer on the wall side than trees past, and I may have placed more of the heavier store-bought ornaments because the kids didn’t have that much school under their belts yet to have made a collection. Our son later confessed that he woke but didn’t get out of bed and thought Santa took a fall. We re-erected the tree with a haphazard decorating job to get us through the next day.

The trees always came down the day after Christmas at the latest. Because no matter how well watered, by then it was starting to brown, the tips of its branches fell off, and the thrill of having cedar stickers stuck in the bottoms of our bare feet was gone. We were tired of wearing socks all the time.

One year, Mom mentioned a fake tree so she could decorate early and enjoy it longer. I was neutral since both finding a tree and having it up longer sounded good to me. But even then, I recognized Dad’s look of disappointment when she mentioned it, so she never mentioned it again as long as I was still home.

And oh, those icicles… Dad made us pick all of them off the tree and save them for the next year before the tree was discarded. That was the worst. Not until a few years ago did I find out how cheap they are. Even back then when we had to save them, though, we loved the icicles, and the tree was dripping with them every year.

We’ve used an artificial tree for years now, since the kids are teens and we are out of town some of our Christmases. But I still find myself proclaiming, now and then, about a tree spotted on the side of the road or in the median: “That tree over there, it’d make a perfect Christmas tree.”

Maybe this is the year of the live, bare-spot, found-deep-in-the-woods, shortened, memory-making Christmas tree drenched in silver icicles. I can’t imagine anything more lovely than that.