Oh Christmas Tree

A Christmas tree defies the dark time, the year’s nadir. Flip a switch and a dim corner transforms into splendor, and each year brings a new opportunity for tree splendor. Everyone has a different definition (that’s part of the magic).

My painter friend’s trees are always a reasonable height and a certain shape and look the way she would draw an icon of a tree, narrow at top, but spreading to a generous width in the bottom branches. Our trees are tall and skinny – tall because I always wanted the tree to be taller than the boys. I still try for that – the old, gold satin star often bends at the ceiling. Small living rooms make skinny a necessity.

Three, well four, times, we’ve actually cut trees. One long-ago year, with my painter friend and her family, on a day stormy with snow, we drove to Turnagain Pass south of Anchorage. The roads were icy, the visibility bad, and our cars marginal for such conditions. We trudged through deep snow and quickly cut a couple of small spruce. The needles fell soon after decorating in our warm houses – pitter-patting like raindrops – on presents below.

For years after that we bought our trees from an indoor fragrant-for-the-season warehouse at a garden center – an early December, Saturday morning ritual. Lovely firs – cut in Minnesota and trucked to Alaska – after hydrating in a bucket of water in the basement for a couple of days, they came upstairs for bedecking.

Here, for two years, we thinned a clump of Doug fir on the south forty and fashioned a tree. Three slender and wispy saplings (little trunks splinted and duct taped together) suggested a pleasing tree shape. But the trees in that clump already grow too big for our house.

Year before last, on a return from Alaska, we stopped at one of many tree cutting farms. We checked in at a warm barn (wood fire and hot cider) and got our saw. We walked through dusk and snowflakes to cut one of the widely planted firs – a difficult choice – a beautiful tree.

Last year, again returning from a trip, I suggested a tree from the grocery store parking lot in Winslow. We loaded it inside the station wagon and drove home with its top, smelling of pitch and sap, between us. Quickly before unpacking, we put the tree in its stand and added lights.

I used to know exactly where decorations belonged in our Anchorage house (like an old garden), but this house was new to Christmas. (Though I asked our designer early on, “Where would the Christmas tree go?” We put it in front of the glass door to the deck, and I like to wonder what the big and serious firs across the bluff think about this twinkling and gussied-up indoor fir displayed inside).

Now I know where things go – my painter friend’s handmade cards across the top of the stairway bookshelves and my old friend’s Swedish straw stars on a thread across the kitchen window. The felted Obama ball ornament, made by the mother of my young friend, still gets pride of place.

Maybe people divide into “early getters” (we saw many cars with trees tied atop when we drove to the ferry after Thanksgiving) or “keepers.” I’m clearly in the latter category – can’t bear to take the tree down till the desperate need for its light and color is lessened.

But I’m ready for the getting now!

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