My grandmother was proud of her fake tree. Feathery white aluminum with blue ornaments, I secretly giggled that it was a Hanukkah bush. I never said so because she had a nasty left hook. Each year she'd retrieve this faux ode-to-joy from under the house. Since she never took the ornaments off, and since it was a whopping 30 inches tall, all Nana had to do was whip its trash bag cover off, plunk the thing down in her living room, plop down in her recliner and sigh, "Merry ding-dong Christmas. Now fetch me some Kichels and rub my feet." I looked on in horror, not just at the thought of touching her feet, but at the idea that Christmas could be so grossly disrespected.
Shiny silver trees were probably quite stylish back in the city, where everything was chrome and quick. However, out in the country, things were a bit different. Chopping down our own Christmas tree had been a tradition in our family since I was knee-high to a pine cone. We kids would have an early breakfast and head out at sunrise, hiking through the pastures, northward to a pine forest, carrying rope, a hacksaw, and lunch. The rope was for tying up my youngest brother and dragging him through the snow when he got whiny. The hacksaw came in handy at lunchtime, trying to digest whatever Mom had made for us. To be honest, we couldn't tell if it was stale since by then it was frozen solid.
I remember singing Christmas songs, mostly to make sure the hunters didn't mistake us for deer. If I sang just right, kinda nasally, it would vibrate my nose and heat it. Early on I had learned not to rub my nose to warm it up. In low temperatures, the tiny hairs inside the nasal passage often froze, so if you rubbed your nose, you'd send icy needles into the sensitive lining of your sinuses. The blood would then drip onto your jacket and Mom would be furious.
It would take all morning just to reach the pine forest, longer if we heard a wolf or bobcat. After lunch we would choose a tree to bring home. This took a while because there were four of us, and in our short, frozen lives we had never agreed on anything. Eventually the boys would pick a really tall tree, maybe thirty to forty feet high. Since I was the oldest, it was my job to climb up and lop off the top of the tree with the hacksaw. Taking just the top of the massive tree made my sister happy, since we weren't really killing the tree, just maiming it. The tree would later die of bug infestation brought on by the decapitation, but again, she would point out, we didn't kill it – the bugs did. (She's now an attorney.) My brothers loved making me climb the thirty or so feet in the air to trim the tree. Try as I might, I was never quite able to hit them with the tree as it fell.
It was then time to tow the vegetative carcass home. We'd take turns pulling it with the rope, back through the woods, even through a small stream. In a Norman Rockwell painting, this is all so very quaint and rustic. In reality, it was, like many family traditions, a royal pain in the ass.
On the long haul back, one of us kids would start whining how we didn’t need a live tree, why we couldn’t do something like Nana and have a measly fake one. This was high treason, or considering the situation, ‘tree-shun.’ I would argue tradition, but truly, at that point, freezing, exhausted, I was in the minority. At least the arguing kept us warm until we got home.
Surprised and a bit taken aback to see all four of us alive and intact, ourparents would welcome us home before retiring for the night. Tradition held that we couldn't eat until the tree was up in the living room. Unfortunately, upon arriving at our house, the tree would somehow grow a foot or two wider, too wide for the doorway. We would push, shove and cram the beast until we had shredded the entryway and cracked enough branches to make the poor tree look like the cows came home right over the top of it.
Some years there was no snow, and the tree would become caked with mud, leaves, and whatever else we ran over. This could be a real problem when we went through the cow pasture. We'd get home a little after sundown, and the lack of daylight made it especially hard to spot any unusual attachments before the tree was inside the house. After getting it upright and tied to the curtain rod, we would notice an unusual odor. Cowpie ornaments don't do well in the heat of a living room, but at this point, we were too exhausted to take the whole thing back outside. Instead, we’d knock off the big nasty chunks, spray some Lysol, and call it a day. Most people turn the least attractive part of the tree toward a wall. We did, too, and it was usually the side sporting bits of cowpie.
Some of the ornaments we weren’t allowed to handle until we were much older. They were antiques, carefully handed down from the time of the Depression. Dark, worn, and fragile, for years I thought we kids weren't allowed to touch them because you could catch 'depression' from them. Why we put them on our tree I had no idea. Perhaps, I reasoned, to appease the gods of depression. I wondered how the ornaments felt, making it through decades of strife, poverty, and difficult times, only to be placed in a ragged pine tree right next to cattle droppings.
As I sat there listening to my brothers argue whether the tree was standing up straight or not, I'd get to thinking how I couldn't wait to have my own kids so I could share this family tradition with them. Whether they liked it or not.