Before I met Fred Lick, I had never gone to a Christmas tree farm. When I was a kid, my father brought a tree home from some lot and we didn’t see it until he was dragging it into the living room and installing it in the old stand with a bit of cursing and pine needles dropping all over the carpet. Dad has never been Mr. Christmas, more like the Grinch, so our decorating sessions were a tad tense, to put it mildly. By the time my brother started throwing tinsel at the tree while I added a few strands at a time and Mom straightened out what we put on, Dad had usually gone off to do something else.
But Fred loved this holiday so much he couldn’t wait to get started. Around Thanksgiving, he made me sit down with the calendar and choose a date for going to get our tree. The earlier the better. In the years when his son Michael lived with us, he joined the tree-chopping crew. We put on our sweaters, heavy coats, gloves and boots and went forth in our Mazda pickup to a distant tree farm in the woods where recorded Christmas music played from an unseen stereo while workers in Santa hats selling wreaths, stands and hot chocolate handed us a long-handled saw and briefed us on the significance of the various labels tied to the trees.
Through rain, mud and/or mushy mushrooms, we went from tree to tree. Too tall, too short, too skinny, bare spot on one side, no, maybe, yes, oh that’s it. What do you think? The three of us would stand there staring at this tree for a few minutes, sighing at its beauty. Then Fred would lower his saw and cut down the tree. I can still hear the rasp of the saw, smell the sawdust, feel the cold air on my face. As Fred sawed, we held onto the top, immersed in the smell of pine needles, getting sticky sap on our gloves. Then, one of us holding each end and one in the middle, we carried it triumphantly back to the office where the Santa-hatted worker swiftly tied it up in twine or netting and eased it into the truck while one of us, usually me, wrote out a check.
At home, the tree rested in a bucket of water until we were ready to install it in the house. A new slice off the bottom, a long period of trying to get it straight in the stand—why did it always look straight from one side and crooked from the other?—and then we got the boxes of ornaments and Christmas decorations down from the rafters. We turned up the Christmas music, heated up the hot buttered rum (hot chocolate for Michael) and decorated for hours, using colored balls, Santas, wreaths, angels and Christmas stockings that had been in our families for decades or that we had acquired together. Each item had a memory attached.
Ah, those were the days. Michael is grown and living in Portland now, and Fred passed away last year. In 2011, my first Christmas alone, I could not bear the thought of decorating for Christmas without Fred. Eventually I put up a small artificial tree and a few decorations, but it wasn’t the same. Too many memories.
This year, it was easier. I put up the artificial tree again, and I hung ornaments on it that make me happy, little guitars and pianos, bears and dogs, ornaments made of sea shells and old earrings, pieces purchased at craft fairs or given to us by friends. I topped the tree with the angel that Fred and I always used. I hung colored lights around the windows, and when I was done, I turned off all the other lights and admired my handiwork. Now as I write, there’s a Santa on my windowsill, a wreath on the bathroom door across the hall, and a clock that plays Christmas carols on the hour in the dining room.
It’s not the same as it used to be, but it’s good and getting better. Merry Christmas to everyone. Please feel free to share your Christmas tree experiences in the comments.