It seems the average price for a Christmas tree in the city I live in is about $80.00 this year. Driving near sellers of the green-needled beauties has made me aware that this annual tradition is not cheap. Late this afternoon with a cold rain being lashed against the windows of the car I slowed to get a better look at ones arrayed in a city parking lot. It was then I flashed back to the white pines of home.
I suspect such flashbacks are more common than not for most people as the holidays approach. Be it the scent of fresh-baked cookies, the traditions of decorating, or the pull of memory resulting from certain chords struck by a carol, we are transported backward through the decades. James and I have found a way to include such memories into our lives each Christmas season.
There are those items of special meaning from over the years that are kept, such as an old change purse, a clothespin, or the gift tags with the writing of loved ones preserved with laminating. But then the question is how do we view them after being placed into boxes?
Several years ago James and I concluded our love of the season necessitated there be more than one Christmas tree in our home. (We have three.) One of the trees is what we call a Memory Tree. It is there that we then place the items such as a small photo of James’ mom and dad along with my mom’s old can opener on a tree that might seem to be an odd array of items to a stranger…..but not to us.
Though our home was built in 1892 with one large white pine from the northern reaches of Wisconsin, we have not had a white pine Christmas tree. But when I was a young man that variety was the only one ever to be decorated for Christmas where I lived. Namely, because much of the wooded portions on the 100 acres back home were of white pine. You never saw me buying a tree when a homegrown one was precisely what I wanted.
The memories of those Christmas trees remain priceless to me. As I looked about (simply for curiosity) at the trees for sale today I thought of the axe that hangs at our home on a wall. It was the very axe that I used in my younger days to cut trees that now stands out in my memory.
In the family probate process, the items I wanted, as my attorney noted at the time, would not have collectively sold for $25.00 at a garage sale in Hancock. Simply put, I wanted memories.
So what does this ax mean to me?
Before purchasing a VW Beetle, with a minuscule trunk, I used to drive home to Hancock to cut a Christmas tree for my apartment in Madison. It was an annual ritual made special because my Dad assisted in making the simple wooden stand that allowed for the tree to stand upright. My trees at that time were always smaller than what was required for the store-bought stands. There was a reason for that.
As a boy, I loved to walk in the woods populated with white pines and oaks. After I got to a certain age, I would take the axe along and chop on this dead branch, or even take down a very small spindly tree here and there. When I grew to be a teenager, there was one tall white pine that I would wail on with the axe. All the tensions of youth were unleashed on that tree. At the end of my teen years, I had discovered there was far more tree than angst. When I left home it was still standing, but with a very haggard look. Since then, the ‘wailing tree’ has come down with age, and others have grown up in its place.
I had narrowed my stress-releasing axing to a single tree thanks to some thoughtful words from my Dad. I was just a boy when he told me that one just never knows when a tree would be needed to hide under in the rain. He looked as though he were sheltering his face from raindrops as he spoke. One can never foresee, he added, the need to climb up one in order to get away from a wild animal. Dad imitated the noise of a bear and its growl. I discovered then that trees were my friends, and I should respect them.
All trees have value according to Dad. Some small trees seemed to me to lack that postcard quality of rounded beauty we as a culture value most at the holidays. One side of so many little trees on our property seemed to be deformed. They did not get enough light, or were too close to other trees in the woods. Dad would comment about the misshapen trees, “They all want to be a Christmas tree!” As I got older, that message seemed ever more important to me. When it came time to chop down my own trees for Christmas, I always sought out a nice tree, but one that was not perfect. My friends would smile, and gently chide me about the ‘Charlie Brown’ tree. Yet, decorated in all the lights and glass ornaments the tree was always perfect, just as it was for Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown, and his friends.
Each season for years and years, I took my Dad’s axe to the woods, and dragged my tree through the snow to our ‘barn’ where Dad would eye it up, and then reach for some wood pieces in the pile near the back of the building. He would measure a bit then take the wood, and place it over the side of a wooden potato crate, and cut for perfect dimensions. He would hammer and fashion the pieces together so the small trunk of the tree would fit without slipping out. As he worked, I would look out the door of the barn, and see my Mom at the kitchen window. She carefully watched our progress, ensuring that we didn’t do anything foolish, or hurt ourselves. Steam collected on the windowpanes from something wonderful cooking on the stove for dinner.
Days after I had the tree back in Madison my Dad would phone to inquire as to how it was standing. I always answered that it was up, and decorated without a single problem. Vendors do not put less-than-perfect Christmas trees on the lots in the city, but I can say with all honesty that my little trees could stand in competition with any of them, if the competition were about conveying life’s lessons on love.
I never asked Dad about how or why he came up with his philosophy about Christmas trees. It just fit him, and never seemed to need an explanation. It means we all are needed in life, and all fit in somewhere. And with a little help from someone can be that which we dream.
And so it goes.