Boden is 14 months old; he’s been walking for a month. He won’t remember this Christmas, or this tree as being less than perfect. Nothing in his life is anything less than perfect (unless he’s overtired or has a diaper rash or something). Everything is new. The wonder is, there’s a tree in the house. It has lights and glass balls on it. And it smells of spruce forest.
I’m proud of Cecily and Mike for plucking the runt tree out of an overcrowded grouping. It wouldn’t likely have survived jammed up next to the other trees. And its removal will mean more light for its neighbors.
It’s good forestry practice. And Charlie Brown would approve. The “Peanuts” Christmas special had already been around for a dozen years by the time our girls were born, in 1977 and 1979. But Charlie Brown’s scraggly cartoon tree, both forlorn and, in the end, appropriately loved, had struck a chord with Ellen and me. We made a point every year of harvesting some malformed thing from the wild, both for the forest health and for the empathy factor: decorated with strings of lights, and ornaments from grandmothers on both coasts, even the most pitiable limb became splendid.
Once the girls were old enough to ski, we toured up into the evergreen zone to select and cut our tree. First we popped a bunch of popcorn and, with needle and thread, strung long popcorn strings. We strung raw cranberries too. We tried alternating cranberries and popcorn on the same string, but the cranberries crowded the fragile popcorns and smashed them. So the strings were pure cranberry and pure popcorn.
We packed them carefully in our backpacks and headed up a snow-covered county road. Through the oak zone and up into the aspen trees. Through aspen meadows and up to the place where young spruce and fir began infiltrating the ranks of creamy aspen trunks, their dark triangles like arrow-feather silhouettes against the snow.
We’d choose our little tree then choose another nearby to decorate, draping the popcorn and cranberry strings as an offering to the forest spirits, or to the gray jays, whichever were hungriest. It reminded me of a time I was skiing in the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff. The peaks are sacred to the Hopi, who believe their kachina spirits live beneath the mountain. Every spring, to ensure summer rains, the Hopi travel into the forest to consecrate mini shrines to the kachinas. As I traversed through the woods, I came across a half-buried fir with eagle feathers tied to a wispy branch and the remnants of sprinkled corn meal stuck in the needles.
When we’d finished our decorating, I’d take out the pruning saw and we’d take turns sawing the trunk of our tree. The trip back down to the pickup was long but always easier with the gravity assist. Even dragging the tree, our strides were longer, the skis hissing with glide. Our twin-ribbon uphill track became something else on the way down: two half-obliterated grooves dusted, white-on-white, by a thousand-needle brush.
In the living room the little tree looked bigger, fuller, especially once the tinsel was lobbed on (from the back of the couch if need be to reach the higher branches) and the knitted angel placed on the topmost sprig. A rumpled sheet from the guest-bed collection did its best imitation of snow, and we were set for the lead-up to Christmas morning.
Most nights before bed the girls asked to turn off all the other lights in the house. The tree took on a reflected magnificence. Red and green and gold light bounced into the center and out beyond the edges. The tinsel moved even when we held our collective breath.
Something was alive there, and slowly dying. Something from the bigger world and, because we lived in the mountains, from our figurative back yard. Something stoic and beyond knowing.
It was a little sad. But it was OK. A little mysterious. But necessary. For Santa to come.