There was no crackle of expectant electricity in the air, no ringing of bells or alleluias filling the air. Just the howling of the wind and a chill that turns your nose into a sore looking bullseye on your face. We found the five dollar coupon I had clipped from the paper, put on our blizzard gear, and headed out on our adventure. It was a long walk to take with a five year old but with no car, and the desperate need we felt to pick up our treasure drove us on.
On the first leg of our journey we were grateful for the wind pushing us along . Now the excitement we felt mounted as we arrived at our destination. Quickly we wove our way through the rows of branches and the sweet smell of balsam and spiced cider until suddenly we were standing in front of the economy trees! As we passed by each tree, we had a disparaging remark for each one. Dead needles. Too skinny. Lopsided. Too round. Suddenly, we found ourselves in front of the perfect one. Without realizing the girth of the short, squat Scotch pine we gleefully waited while the attendant wrapped it up with twine. With a spring in our step, we dragged our poor tree behind us through the dirt and gravel that decorated the side of the road. We laughed and planned out which decorations we would make to put on between the garland and balls.
The realization that it had gotten colder didn't put a damper on our cheerful moods - yet. We had started out singing, but the wind wasn’t our friend this time. No, the wind sucked the air right out of our mouths and made us silent. Our progress was slow and it became increasingly difficult to maintain the sense of merriment we had started with. As our feet got heavier with each step a kind man pulled over and asked us if we needed help. In those days trusting someone was much easier, especially on that windy day before Christmas. The freezing air eased my decision. I gratefully accepted and he tossed the tree in the back and we hopped in beside it. The clouds broke and the radiant sun smiled down at us.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, my family had a silver tree with a four colored spinning wheel. I’d lay underneath, watching the light and the silver bounce off the shiny ornaments thinking it was the most magically beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Surely the angels were singing and Santa would be pleased.
It was like that every year, always an artificial one that was never alive and certainly not one that we'd trudge on a farm for. The last tree while Mom was still with us was one that my older brother and his friends brought home from a deserted lot a stroke past midnight. Smelling like pine and with a dusting of snow on its branches, there it was! A real live tree! It had taken 16 years of my life to have a real tree in our house. Mom had never asked for a live tree before and she had watched the clock anxiously waiting for him to arrive. I never asked her what had made her suddenly make the switch from artificial. Maybe she’d always wanted one and my dad wouldn’t let her, or maybe she knew that her days were numbered. The memory has stayed with me for almost 50 years, and thinking back, I never thought to ask.
Raising my own children I always made the tree the tradition. As they grew in stature I realized I could use them as markers when a tree seemed promising. There were my children dotting the field, only the pom-poms on the top of their hats as beacons to lead me back to where they were. Invariably, we would pick one of the finalists and drag it back to the starting point only to find that the perfect tree had been there all along, one we could all agree upon. We would turn our original choice ashamedly back to the owner and get back on the ground and chop down another.
As year after year went by, the stories grew. One year I saw an ad for five dollar trees. The people were trying to clear the land and offered the trees for that price because they wanted to have their trees topped. Not knowing what that meant, we hopped into the car and off we went. I found out that day that topping meant we had to climb up to the top and chop it off. Another thing I learned over the years is that all the trees look perfect when you see them from afar. Also, when you are looking at a very tall tree from the ground the place you decide to cut is not a good estimate of what the tree will look like when it drops to the ground. Somehow we got it home only to find that I had delusions of grandeur and the tree filled the living room. All these escapades seemed o come with our own brand of bickering but the somewhat harsh words have become like love letters tied up with a bow.
Every year since, I’ve gone on a journey like the first one with my daughter. They’ve all been marked by some event that I hold close to my heart. From the kind man who offered us hope on a cold day, to my grandson at the tender age of three hiding in the rows of trees on a farm, each has a page in the book that is my life.
But this year, I don't think I'll go out to the field and trudge around looking for a perfect tree that doesn't exist. After all, it's just a small centerpiece on a table, a symbol of the season. The art of the tradition has become the tradition, and the tree has become simply that - a tree. The art, the tradition has been written on my heart. Not the tangible but the tangible. New branches need to grow green and strong. Time for pages in a new book.