The smell of pine and balsam needles still takes me back to the North Woods — and the sight of my dad, often 20 paces ahead of the rest of us, carrying an ax and saw.
Some people buy their Christmas trees off a lot, or assemble them from a box. Others chop theirs down at tree farms. For our family, it was never that easy. And that’s what was so wonderful about it.
For us, finding a Christmas tree was an all-day event — a much-anticipated tradition prompted by my wildlife biologist father that found us traipsing through Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, with a $1 permit in hand, in search of the perfect tree.
If the snow was deep, we used snowshoes. If it wasn’t, we’d pull on our boots, pile into my dad’s truck and head out on an adventure.
Once in the woods, the ritual went something like this: target a tree and circle it; grab the trunk and gently shake it to remove the snow; take a few steps back; and assess. If you found a tree you thought had potential, you’d call the rest of the family over to take a look.
As the youngest of four kids in a family full of opinions, I learned early on that choosing THE tree was a matter of much discussion and debate.
One candidate might be a bit rounder and plumper. Another might stand at attention like a skinny sentry. Still others might have two shoots at the top, or a bare spot on one side — seemingly fatal flaws to a lot of people, but not to us. Not for the right tree. (Besides, in a pinch, you’d be surprised what can be done with a drill and a spare branch, as I learned from my dad.)
Indeed, in the classic sense, the trees we ended up with weren’t perfect at all. They were specimens that Charlie Brown himself would’ve been proud to call his own.
But even when others laughed, I stood tall.
To me, our Christmas trees were the epitome of all that was real and true.
Each one had a story. And in them, I learned to see the perfection in the imperfections — to appreciate what the natural world had to offer.
And that was only half the fun.
Bring on the ornamentsOnce we had our tree home, we dusted off the Christmas records, including the Chipmunks, one of my early favorites. We’d warm up with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire in the fireplace — then start the business of decorating.
There were ornaments we all wanted to place in the tree, in particular a stuffed mouse we named “Marvin” who slept in a tiny hammock that hung from the boughs. He was a gift my mom, a teacher, received from a student. And through the years, we received other ornaments as gifts and added our own, made at school or home.
We also had a Santa Claus, sent by my grandmother, which we placed atop our doorbell box. For a long time, I was convinced that he was one of Santa’s spies, sent to see if I was being “naughty or nice.”
As the night wore on — and as often happens with mothers — my mom was always the one who saw the decorating job through to the end. When others got tired or distracted, she was there to put the very last piece of tinsel on the tree.
She also was the one who eventually prodded the troops to take the tree down, even when I protested that it was too soon. January seemed drearier without the sparkling lights and Marvin, who, sadly, spent most of his time wrapped in tissue paper in a box in our basement.
By the time my siblings had all left for college, the getting-of-the-tree was a big bonding point for my parents and me. When I finally left home, knowing they were going to get the tree without me was one of the things that made me most homesick.
Now, as the years have passed, and my parents have aged, getting around in the snow isn’t as easy for them as it used to be, particularly for my dad, who has rheumatoid arthritis.
But whenever we can, my own family and I still go up to carry on the tradition.
The permits are $5 now. And we must look like a bit of a sight, heading home on the highway with our scraggly tree tied atop our car, flapping in the wind as if to wave meagerly at passersby. One can only wonder how many of the tree’s needles we leave strewn along the way.
Our friends — trying to hide their smirks when they see our tree — sometimes ask why we bother, when we can get a near-perfect Canadian balsam just down the street for 50 bucks.
It’s difficult to explain for those who didn’t grow up with the same tradition.
I guess it’s just something between me, my parents — and Chuck.