Although I have many wonderful holiday memories, the tradition that stands out in mind as being special for my family every year was the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree.
Each year, about three weeks before Christmas Day, my family would get bundled up in snow pants, scarves and boots and head “up in the woods,” as we say in Newfoundland. We had a few favourite back roads to which we’d head, although they didn’t always prove fruitful, and we would park the truck by the side of the highway and start the hunt.
I always tried to spot the perfectly shaped tree, like the ones in the storybooks. Brother didn’t care as long as it got him home to his game system soon. Sister would point out something wrong with my selections, just on principle’s sake. Mother looked for a fullness that could support our plethora of ornaments, and father seemed to have his own agenda and over-rode us all. Usually he could be counted on to veto Mom’s selection because it was a spruce, which he claimed lost its needles faster, and insist we keep looking for a pine or a fir.
Eventually we’d all agree, the axe would start chopping (brother and I, by ourselves in our late teens or early 20’s, nearly electrocuted ourselves one year when the tree came very close to falling on a power line), and then the lugging would begin. Without fail, we’d always gone much further from the truck than we’d intended, but even little sister, whose tiny hands and stumbling feet were more of a hindrance,
would take a turn at carrying the heavy load. I’d always moan about the myrrh on my mitts (of course I’d forgotten to wear old ones) but never too much because it smelled so good that I didn’t really mind.
Once we got it home and it had dried out after a few days of lying under the veranda, we’d bring the tree inside, trailing needles everywhere and trying not to damage the limbs. The decorating would begin, and once we’d got past the inevitable swearing at the lights — we could never seem to pack them away with the same care they were brought out each year — the real fun would begin. Christmas carols would be blaring from the stereo, Mom would be filling the house with the kinds of aromas that linger in your memory, Dad would sit back and watch with a glass of whiskey in his hand as each ornament was carefully unfolded from its wrapping and its story told before being hung gently on the tree.
There was the little drummer boy picture frame I’d made in Sunday School, before I had even started kindergarten, nestled against the trunk; there were the delicate blown glass bells made by a far-off cousin; there were the tiny red and green mittens, embroidered with each of our names; there were the personalized and handmade balls an aunt made when she had cancer; there were the candy canes hung out of the dog’s reach; there was Mom, insisting we needed more red and pointing out the spots still waiting to be decorated.
Ours was no colour coordinated, uniquely themed, professionally decorated tree. It was a mess of memories, and as I get older and begin to form my own Christmas traditions, those trees stand out in my mind as the cornerstone of each Christmas. To me, nothing symbolized Christmas more, or told our family history better, and each one was more beautiful than the last.
* Amended from the original publication in the Stettler Independent (2007).