By Faith Ellestad
Yes, it’s that most wonderful time of the year. I know this because it’s cold, its December, and the neighbors have thoughtfully left clues-festive bow-bedecked evergreen swags festoon one’s porch railing, and another’s orange Halloween lights had been replaced by multiple strings of twinkling little multicolored LEDs. AHA.
Now in years past, I would not have required these prompts to remind me that ’twas the season to be jolly because I had Mom, who unfailingly, at the first sighting of a beribboned wreath on someone’s door, would announce sonorously,
“Well, I see Christmas has us by our throats again!” Now there was a tradition. Fa la la la la…
However, after starting my own family, I was determined to leave Mom’s” fear of festivity” business in the dust. I decided that selecting the perfect tree would be just the right tradition to infuse excitement and enthusiasm into the start of our holiday season. Of course, my plan, well-meaning though it was, had flaws, most notably that it was singularly my plan, and maybe I was a little more enthused than anyone else.
I remember clearly the first Christmas my husband and I were married. The day before Christmas Eve I suddenly, desperately wanted a tree so we hopped into the Volkswagen, drove to a nearby gas station and purchased one of the three remaining Scotch pines, lashed it to the roof and hurried home, totally forgetting it would need a stand and decorations. Back at the apartment, we released the tree from its bonds and were startled to discover it was as round as a beach ball and quite unwieldy. Our innovative solution to the stand problem involved filling a tin can with water, placing it in a cement block borrowed from our block and board bookcase, and inserting the tree therein. A quick trip to Treasure Island for a few clearance ornaments and a string of lights transformed it into a thing of beauty. I believe I may have even strung popcorn for a garland that year. First tree, best tree?
I’ve had decades since that beginner Christmas to refine my festive tradition, but glitches do occur in spite of my earnest resolve. One holiday, shortly before our first son was born, we purchased a tree that in hindsight, must have been left over from a previous year. It held its needles for about three days, until our dog Luke bumped it trying to sneak a drink from the tree stand. Almost instantly, a crackling shower of needles cascaded over him, leaving the tree virtually naked and the dog covered in resinous, sticky detritus which adhered to him like fleas in summer. He smelled great, though.
A few years later we decided it would be fun to take our three and six-year-old sons to a tree farm and harvest our own much fresher tree. We thought the kids would be enthralled by the idea of actually chopping down a real tree, but they showed no interest in that activity whatsoever. Much more exciting to them was sword-fighting with the endless supply of sharp, pokey, splintery branches left by other tree harvesting families. Their dad became the sole woodsman, gamely hacking down a hastily selected pine while I tried to prevent grievous injury to eyes and other vulnerable body parts. It would be many years before any of us performed a self-harvest again.
We’ve been to good tree lots and bad, some with spray painted firs, others with mostly Charley Brown style trees. We’ve learned that Scotch Pines are economical but scratchy and the needles are virtually impossible to get out of shag carpet. White pines are beautiful, soft and smell grand, but their gentle flexibility allows ornament and lights to slide right off their branches at the slightest touch. Balsams are elegant and wonderfully fragrant, but seem to need water several times a day, too labor intensive, especially if you have a dog who favors tree water.
At the tree lot, you take your chances, variety-wise. And I suppose if one planned ahead, one might check the weather and not inevitably head out to select a tree on the coldest day of the season. Unfortunately, we were not planners-ahead, more spur-of-the moment shoppers, which has left us in near-frostbite territory more than once. Eventually the boys got wise to this poor planning.
One December, due of a prolonged spell of unusually frigid temperatures, we waited longer than usual to shop for a tree, hoping the weather might moderate. But the cold was unremitting, and after several days, I began to worry that all the best trees would be taken.
“We’ve never not found a tree,” my husband reminded me, but I was not to be assuaged. It was time.
Ignoring their protests, I herded everyone into coats, scarves, gloves and boots to ward off below zero wind chills, and we piled into the car for the annual pilgrimage to one of the many available Tate’s Trees corrals. Amazingly, there were lots of possibilities to choose amongst. I was the first to exit the car and rushed off into the Tannenbaum grove eager to start our traditional selection. A few moments into my search I realized the lot was deadly silent. No jubilant cries of “check this one out” or “here’s a good one” to be heard. Glancing around and seeing no one nearby, I looked back over my shoulder to discover everyone but me still sitting cosily inside the car.
“Hey”, what’s going on?” I yelled through chattering teeth. “We haven’t picked out a tree yet.”
“It’s too cold. You pick it out. This was your idea”, one of the kids snapped. “We’re not going out there, its freezing!” his brother agreed while their dad silently turned up the heat.
I could feel the cold through my boots now. Trudging as fast as my numb legs would allow, I returned alone to the lot and pointed to the first tree in my line of sight.
“That one”, I mumbled to the attendant. and handed him some cash. He tied it to the roof of the car and we headed home. No one mentioned the curved trunk or missing bottom branch. We all pretended it was perfect.
Times change and kids grow up. That was our last family tree-finding excursion. Since then, just my husband and I carry on the tradition. For several years after the Christmas rebellion, Peter and I found it pleasant to hike into the hills of a nearby tree farm and once again cut our own fresh tree. The crisp air, the heady fragrance of hundreds of evergreens, mixed with the farmish smell of the reindeer enclosure would evoke a calm, pastoral sense of well-being as we selected our Fraser fir, generally the tree with the thickest trunk, on the highest hill farthest from the parking lot. My husband complains good naturedly that I have to see every tree on the farm, sometimes twice before we select, and that is actually sort of true. One year, after about an hour of searching I spotted the absolutely most perfect tree ever. I couldn’t believe my good luck. “Found it!” I exclaimed excitedly. Peter hurried over
“We can’t get that tree,” he told me. “
Why not?” I whined,” Its beautiful”.
“It is,” he agreed, but it’s not in the tree farm. It’s on the neighbors’ lot. They’d probably be upset if we cut it.”
I had to acquiesce. We found another.
Then last year, Covid arrived, and we didn’t want to be around throngs of merry lumberjacks, so we opted to mask up and buy a tree from a garden center during their least busy time of the week. We quickly chose a very moderate Fraser fir, the best for holding onto its needles. Once in place, it looked just as fresh as if it were newly hewn.
Covid is still here and has taught me that traditions can be modified. We returned to the garden center this year. We still want a real tree and that part will probably never change, but when it’s home and decorated, our tradition is fulfilled, just the same. It’s easier, safer, and equally beautiful. As we gradually accept the shift from tree farm to garden center, I’ve realized that I’m still able to inhale the scent of fresh Christmas trees. And eventually, I may not even miss the essence of the reindeer barn.
© 2021 Faith Ellestad
Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.