In the 1950’s a former owner of our property planted many acres to Scotch pine and spruces for Christmas trees. When we came to Irish Hill Road in 1980, the blocks of Scotch pines had become impenetrable jungles, perfect hideouts for deer. Gradually, porcupines and disease were killing them off. The spruces fared better, growing into handsome stands where crows and blue jays love to nest. All over the property seedlings from those plantings have sprung up.
Fred and I both come from traditions of wild Christmas trees. My family cut willowy hemlocks at our camp in New Hampshire. The Beckhorns cut bushy little white pines from Grampa Gach’s farm in Alfred. In our youth we both worked at Stutzman’s Christmas tree farm in Hornell and we well know how a nicely pruned Christmas tree should look, but we’ve always been happy with our “Dr. Seuss “ trees, as Fred sometimes calls the more unruly ones. Sometimes we have cut a big tree and lopped off the top. Most years we locate a suitable one growing on our property right alongside Irish Hill Road.
This year we found our tree right across from Fred’s shop. We’d passed it many times with a thought towards the holidays, but the little spruce’s double trunk always nixed it. How could we ever get it into the stand? The young evergreens that spring up in the ditch along the south side of the road shade it and ice remains here long after it has melted other places. They need to come out anyway. Well, let’s just take a look. . . Lo and behold, the double trunk had split from a single stem eight inches from the ground—just enough to fit into the stand. It was perfect. Once set up in the front room, there was no room to actually put a gift under the tree, but no matter.
With the kids grown, decorating is my business. Football is Fred’s. But this year I made a bargain—you put on the lights and I’ll handle the ornaments. It worked. He dutifully tackled the job—but of course I found myself helping to untangle strings, tightening bulbs, and replacing duds. It was fun doing it together. Now I was in the mood. Fred retired to the couch and the game and I, blind and mostly deaf to the NFL or whatever FL was running roaringly around on the screen—set to work.
My husband is an apple tree pruner, a fire wood cutter, a wood butcher, and furniture builder, but he is not a tree decorator. Well, what self respecting woman would trust a man to trim a tree anyway? I ask myself. There’s an art to it. You can’t hang six ornaments on one branch, fragile ones within cat reach, or the best ones at the back—as my man has been known to do—and he may be a wood artist, but you don’t want to set him loose with a box of tinsel.
Now if you’re going to decorate something, a tree is a damn good choice. There are all those branches! Every year I tell myself, you don’t have to put all the ornaments on, but every year, one by one, each with a memory, finds its place. There is the little black ceramic sheep with wool made by pressing clay through a sieve that Fern made at Gammy Lou’s house a quarter of a century ago. It sounds better than it looks. Usually I have hung it low, but this year my newly married older daughter is spending her first Christmas with her husband in Colorado. It is suddenly precious. I place it high in the front. There are all the hand made ornaments: chickadees, Santas, reindeer, rocking horses, a miniature basket full of tiny balls of wool with pins for knitting needles. My sister Cathy has given them to me over the years. She makes them for her church bazaar and always sends me the current year’s model. I could decorate the whole tree with them!
But I can’t leave out the scrollwork star that my high school friend Shiori made, or the stained glass star that Ken made, or the real starfish star. I hang all three stars in the top with the cheap K-Mart angel that Fern and I bought when she was three and still called it the “Ball Store.” I have to set the angel high enough above the top white light so that it doesn’t look as if her feet are burning up. There’s the crudely carved wooden squirrel that I bought from a boy with muscular dystrophy the summer I worked for the Frontier Nursing Association in Kentucky. His mother hated to part with it, but they needed money and I loved it so much that she relented. I feel badly about buying him from her now, so every year I make sure to honor this little squirrel. I hope he carved another. There’s the tiny paper and glitter crèche from Loudonville—at least as old as I am. There’s the porcelain Beatrix Potter mouse, Hunca Munca with her babies, that Aunt Shirley sent me when I was first married. There’s the little wooden sled that I painted with the words "hope" and "joy" when, in 1982, I was miraculously pregnant with our first child. There’s the sea-blue, blown-glass orb that Spring bought as a little girl on a visit to Frankenmuth, Michigan which will go to her tree when she has a home of her own. Each ornament has a story. I revel in Christmas past as I create Christmas present.
A week later, it is Christmas Eve and Spring and her dad have both gone to bed. But I am still unwinding from the night’s festivities. I help Santa stuff Spring’s stocking, tuck a couple of things into Fred’s and mine, and find gift bags for the dog toys. Poor old Spike’s Christmas present is a bag of tasty pill pockets. The Jack Russells will be sure to gratify us by finding their gifts, snuffling their noses into the bags, and digging out their new toys.
Then I pour myself a little Grand Marnier in one of the surviving delicate pink liquor glasses from my parents’ house, recalling the Christmas Eve I was allowed to sip my first crème de menthe—perhaps from this very same glass. I turn out all the other lights and sit a moment to sip, and savor the magic of the tree. Everything is done now: the baking, the cards, the making, the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating. Christmas can come in now.
But wait! The white light at the top of the tree under the angel is out! I shuffle to the cellar, find a new bulb, and unmindful of the glass of champagne I had a t Jeri and Ken’s house earlier and the Grand Marnier just now, climb the kitchen stool and screw in a new one.
It doesn’t work.
Doggedly, I return to the cellar for another. Yes! We have white light at the top of the tree, and an angel and stars!
There is one more sip in my glass. Not a creature is stirring. The little wild, double- stemmed spruce glimmers and glitters. Mum used to wrap all her gifts in shiny paper to enhance the shimmer. This year’s tree is truly beautiful—as always, the best one yet. But are there too many red lights? Should I put in a green one there, mid-way to the left? That’s it Susan! Sternly I send myself to bed and into Christmas future.