O Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree Day has always been my favorite day of the year, a totally unofficial holiday, but my favorite one. When I was young, it mostly consisted of my parents cutting down whatever tree looked okay enough in the hollow and didn’t have an animal nesting in it. But as I got older, Christmas Tree Day became a capital-O Occasion.
It started at about 10 a.m. the Friday after Thanksgiving. We’d hitch up a trailer, and we’d head out of town towards Evans. We’d drive through downtown Evans and into the outskirts until we reached our destination right near the Mason County line: Santa’s Forest. Of all the businesses that are bygone in Jackson County, I miss Santa’s Forest the most, because it’s the business where my family spent the most quality time together. We didn’t eat out as a foursome much, we didn’t shop together much, but every year, the four of us went to Santa’s Forest to pick out “The Tree.”
Our tree requirements were pretty high, and I’m not talking just quality. Our house was an A-Frame, with twenty-foot ceilings, and you just can’t put a seven-foot tree in that room and pretend that’s okay. So at a minimum, we needed a ten foot tree with full, sturdy branches, because my mom never met a heavy, branch- bending ornament she didn‚Äôt like. In any tree lot or on any farm, you can find a seven or eight-foot tree with minimum effort; but finding one at least ten feet tall required adventuring. Our trees were rarely found right on the beaten paths; most often, they were over the hills, way away from the entrance, in a ravine where they’d been left to grow because no person in their right mind would choose them when other trees were easier to cut.
But we didn’t mind. The four of us would fan out, an unspoken competition arising between us to be the person who spotted “The Tree.” More often than not, my mother would find the perfect tree, a green pine gem that from far away looked ordinary, but up close, always turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. We still talk about the year she spotted a sixteen-foot Scotch pine, which may have been the most perfect tree we ever put up: straight trunk, no gaping holes in the branches, and by some holiday miracle, only about twenty-feet from a path. Which was really great for the Santa’s Forest helpers, who never acted put out when they helped us with our behemoth trees, no matter where they were.
I can’t remember the man’s name, but every year, the same guy with long black hair always nicely grabbed up his chainsaw, crawled under the branches, and made our tree dreams come true by getting our chosen tree cut, dragging it up to the vehicle, and helping us get it tied to the trailer (no wrapping of trees in our size-range; we just roped it in and hoped we could get back to Fairplain with it still in the back). Then my dad would pay the nice older couple who lived on the tree farm (which basically sounds like my ideal retirement plan), we’d all exchange some Christmas pleasantries, and then we’d drive away carefully, the radio blasting Christmas music from The Carpenter’s Christmas albums.
And then we’d get home and the cussing would begin.
Because here’s the deal: trees over ten feet tall are not easy to handle: they are super heavy and completely unwieldy. The only way to get it in the house was through opening both French doors off the upstairs deck, and before we could do that, we had to perform plastic surgery on the tree’s lower half.
With a handheld saw, we’d lop off enough branches to accommodate presents, and then my dad would put on the tree stand. Which, depending on the trunk, either meant he’d screw it in or hammer it in, and then we’d heave it through the doors, pull it close to the stairwell, and take a few minutes break to brace ourselves for the real exertion to come.
There is a reason we only ever put our Christmas tree near the stairwell: because our massive trees required three points of securing: we’d tie it off in two places on stair handrail, and then we’d nail the stand to the floor. Yes, you read that right: Dad would thread nails through the feet of the tree stand, and nail it right into my mom‚Äôs hardwood floors. If he was extremely lucky, he could position the tree stand so the nails could be hammered into the existing cracks in the floor. But some years, after forty-minutes of maneuvering, he’d just scream out of the f-word and start hammering.
Weirdly enough, the manual labor of putting up the tree may have been my favorite moment of my favorite holiday. Because we had to work together as a family team to get that tree up; every hand and eye was needed to get that tree secure and straight. I remember clearly the year we got what we thought was the perfect tree, only to discover when we got home it was anything but. For an hour, we moved that tree around: Dad would move the trunk, thinking it was straight, but then Colton would have to move the top of the tree because it was crooked from the side. Then I’d have to move the middle of the tree because it was leaning to my eye, only to have mom tell us all the tree was completely off center and she’d wonder aloud if any of us had functioning retinas.
After an hour of pushing, pulling, yanking, and many, many creative cuss words, Dad finally glanced up inside the tree and discovered the problem: the trunk of that tree was as crooked as a West Virginia road; there was no way it would ever be “straight.” We finally decided to nail down the stand, tie it off in about four places, and as long as you looked at it from the front, you didn’t really notice. But that was the only time in almost thirty years of trees that my family and I had to take a long break between getting the tree into place and actually decorating, because if we hadn’t, I firmly believe someone would have gotten strangled with a twinkle light cord. And Santa does not bring presents to boys and girls who murder each other over Christmas trees.
While our system for securing the tree didn’t change much (we did start to check every tree for crooked trunks before we left the Santa’s Forest lot, lol), our actual decorating did evolve.
Like all 80s people starting out in their new home, my parent‚Äôs first trees comprised of whatever decorations they scrounged up as they moved out of their parents’ houses: some cheap garland, those lights with the huge, multi-colored bulbs, ornaments that were a mix of new and soon-to-be-sentimental, and for years, every tree of ours got a coating of silver icicle tinsel. Silver icicle tinsel, for those of you unfamiliar, are long strands of shiny plastic which are every clean freak and latent OCD-sufferer’s worst nightmare.
There are really only two ways place tinsel on a finished tree to make it look good: place each long strand individually on branches, or the Ranson Way: Colton and I would stand on the stairwell behind the tree, take a small handful of tinsel, then blow it so it would fly into the air, then drift down onto the branches. If my parents weren’t currently laying on the couch in exhaustion, they’d blow tinsel on the tree from the front, and we’d basically create a storm of silver until we ran out. And even then, there would still be places where the tinsel clumped, and my mom had to live with that shame for years, until the Christmas we all four agreed that silver tinsel was the worst and would never be on a tree of ours again. It was one of our rare unanimous decisions, a Christmas miracle if ever there was one.
So after every bulb was placed and we’d done a quick clean-up of fallen needles and stray tinsel, we’d turn off every light in house, leaving just the glow of the tree to illuminate the living room. We’d sit on the couch and armchairs, captivated by the light, in awe of what we managed to accomplish in eight-hours of picking and driving and nailing and decorating and cussing. This temporary masterpiece that our family put together to enjoy until the New Year (or until my mom got tired of vacuuming up dropped needles). And we’d start to softly sing: “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches.” But just that line, over and over, because that’s the only part of the song we knew, and that fact always made us laugh.
I mostly celebrate Christmas Tree Day by myself now (and have taken to leaving my thirteen-foot artificial tree up all year round, so now it only gets cussed at when it hits the ceiling fan as I move it from stairwell to corner and back). Like all holidays of the past, I miss the way I used to celebrate it, mostly because I miss the people I celebrated it with. It’s not the same in so many ways: no trip to Santa’s Forest, I don’t have to nail my tree to the floor, and the ornaments on it are all ones I’ve bought in the last decade (save for a set of twenty-year-old, giant gold pinecones my mom gave me which are so heavy I could use them as cannon fodder, if there’s ever a Christmas war in Fairplain. I’m coming for you, Shamblin Road).
But one thing never changes: when all the bulbs and glitter branches are on, I turn off all the lights, I sit down in my armchair, and I look on my tree in wonder. And even though it’s just me, and even though I have the internet and could find out what the next verse is, in the glow of the twinkle-lights of my living room, I softly sing the first line of “Christmas Tree” over and over, and remember all the trees that came before this one, who brought light and joy into winter nights, even on the winter nights when nothing felt joyful.
So ends my favorite day of the year, but the joy, and memories, that tree brings me? That’s the true gift that keeps on giving.