The Christmas tree seemed to be, in my memory, the center of Christmas. I remember visiting homes of family and friends, walking from one house to another in the neighborhood, just to see each other’s Christmas trees. There would be coffee, cookies or a Christmas drink shared during each visit. Each time we would stand, silently, looking at our neighbor’s Christmas tree. In our minds’ eyes, I’m sure we compared the decorating styles. But at the end of the visit, the Christmas tree was what was important. The process of getting the tree, trimming the tree, and sharing the tree with family, friends, and neighbors was what mattered. The center of Christmas was the Christmas tree.
Even with the tricks of memory it seems that it was a simpler time. It was a time when friends and family mattered more than presents. It was a time when the ever-present materialism of our current culture did not seem to dominate us. It was enough to have a Christmas tree, cookies from each family’s ethnic tradition, fruit cakes and eggnog, smiles on children’s faces and carols sung by voices from all the churches in town. It was a time when we stood in awe of the little Fir and all of the stories from the past that made it the center of our celebration of Christmas.
As a child I learned the words to O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree) to sing at a church Christmas Pageant. Remember the words to the first verse:
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!
In beauty green will always grow
Through summer sun and winter snow.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches.
Christmas trees, their tradition and beauty have always been a part of my life. Legends surrounding the origin of the Christmas tree are many. Most of the legends come from parts of northern Europe. One story tells that when Christianity first came to Northern Europe, three virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity were sent from Heaven to find a tree that was as high as hope; as great as love; as sweet as charity; and one that had the sign of the cross on every bough. Their search ended in the forests of the North where they found the Fir. Lighted from the radiance of the stars, it was the first Christmas tree. That is one of many legends.
The legends tell one story. But when I was a child the Christmas tree was not about a legend — it was a source of wonder for me. Christmas was always the story of two traditions. One was Scandinavian and Lutheran and the other was Ukranian and Russian Orthodox. The center of the Christmas celebration for both was the Christmas tree.
When I was very young, seven or eight years of age, it was my great joy to go with my father into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree. My mother had very specific requirements for the Christmas tree. It had to be a balsam and not a spruce. It had to be tall enough to fill the corner of the living room, but not too tall. But most importantly it had to be full at the bottom and properly tapered to the top. The top had to have a point that would hold the star.
Each early December (we couldn’t put the tree up until the second week of December) my father and I would take off on a Saturday afternoon to find the perfect tree. I remember one year there was at least two feet of snow on the ground. My father had to plow through the snow to make a track or trail for me so that I could walk. We trudged through what seemed to me to be miles and miles of snow. Each time I thought we had found the perfect tree my father would say, “No, that’s a spruce,” or “That’s not a balsam.” Or he would take his tape measure from his pocket, measure and say, “No this one is too tall.” Sometimes we would find a tree that looked so fantastic and I would say “This is got to be perfect. It’s a balsam, it doesn’t look too tall.” My dad would chuckle and say: “No, this one is too big around on the bottom and it would fill half of our living room.”
We walked and walked. Finally on the side of hill there sat in singular splendor a tree that looked to be perfect. I was afraid to say a word. I was tired and I wanted this tree to be the one. While were still a little ways off my dad stopped, dead still and looked; he put a hand on my shoulder stopping me in my tracks. He said, almost in a whisper, “This looks like it might be the one.”
It met all of my mother’s requirements. It was a balsam. It was the right height. It wasn’t too big around at the bottom of the tree. My dad smiled. He took the small bow saw that he carried by a sling and, with me lifting up the bottom branches and brushing away the snow, cut down our Christmas tree. It was a great moment.
We carried the Christmas tree back to the truck. We carried it when I could stagger through the snow keeping the top of the tree from dragging in snow. My dad half dragged the tree and me when I got tired.
After what seem like a long time we were back at the road. I stayed with the tree in the lengthening dusk and my father went to get the truck. We loaded the tree and returned home.
When we returned home we backed up to the old woodshed. My father dropped the tailgate of the truck and we pulled the tree out, far enough to make another cut on the trunk, a straight cut so that it would fit square in the stand. We put the tree in the stand and stood in the shed. “Well,” my father said, “I’ll go get your mother.” I stood waiting.
My mother came into the shed. She looked and looked. Finally after several little clucks and hmmms she said, “That’s a nice tree.” I could hear my father let out a deep sigh of relief. I just smiled.
Once we took the tree inside, the trimming began. When I was very young this was an incredible production. My father would carefully place several strings of blue lights on the tree with the star on the top. My mother would carefully put tinsel on each branch. Many times the ironing board was set up so that the tinsel could be ironed and straightened. The ironed surface made sure that it would shine and shimmer. When the tinsel was hung each branch had cotton batten placed on the flat balsam branches. Once cotton batten was in place, Ivory Snow soap flakes would be carefully poured on top of the snowy looking cotton. The tree looked as if it were snow covered with the tinsel dancing from each branch. We plugged in the blue lights which cast an incredible glow on the whole tree.
When the decorating was complete we would stand silently in awe of our Christmas tree. Each year the tradition grew in importance. Even after the style of decorations changed and the tree was no longer decorated with the ironed tinsel and the blue lights, cotton batten and Ivory Snow, there was always a sense of awe surrounding the Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree has always been a symbol of life. It is the “evergreen” in the midst of a gray and dark winter. It is the symbol of life in the bleak midwinter. When you go home and gather around your Christmas tree don’t just look at the presents under the tree, look at the tree. Then think about all of the people who are in the room with you. Parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and remember how important they are and how the Christmas tree brings you together every year to celebrate the holidays and how for a brief moment O Tannenbaum silences our disagreements and introduces us once again to the simple joy of an evergreen tree.
Think back on the Christmas trees of your life. Write a story about getting a tree, decorating a tree, or what that symbol meant to you, and just Write On.