Friday, December 9, 2011

Bringing in the tree

It must have been planted upwards of 30 or 40 years ago.  It grows on an eastern-facing slope just above a little creek way up in the headwaters of what eventually becomes the wide waters of the Roanoke River down in eastern North Carolina.  But up here in the Blue Ridge, it's a spring-fed run, just wide enough to have to take a running jump over it.  I think Hal Strickland planted it in the 1970s not long after he bought the 66-acre farm ("66 acres, more or less," as the deed has it) where we now live.

I think it's a blue spruce, though my quick consultation with The Sibley Guide to Trees suggests a couple other possibilities. Some relatives nearby look a little bluer. Thing is, it's magnificent. In an area where we are losing some handsome hemlocks, this tree has a lovely shape, broad and tall with a lush coat. It's just the sort of thing the well-to-do folks on Sunset and Country Club drives decorated with hundreds of large colored bulbs in the 1950s when I was growing up in Greensboro, two hours south of here. It would have taken days to get it right, moving those heavy strings of lights around with long poles and extension ladders so that the red and green and gold and blue lights were positioned just right.  Long after seeing the National Christmas Tree lit in Washington, the rich tapestry of the trees at Rockefeller Center in New York and the dazzling Christmas spectacle of Biltmore House all dressed for the season, the memory of those huge trees in Greensboro still evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

Maybe that's why I began to feel a sense of responsibility in the mid-1950s when my dad first consented to let me find and cut and bring in the family tree. "Bring in a good one," he would say. My buddy Ray Manieri and his dad used to go out to a quarry southeast of town and find a suitable cedar, and for years I tagged along, my dad's old U.S. hatchet in hand, bent on a mission of finding the perfect tree.  Never did, but I brought home a number of scratchy, gooey aromatic cedars that from 200 yards looked magnificent, from 50 yards still looked good and from up close looked presentable -- if we could get enough lights and ornaments and tinsel on the thing to fill in the gaps and make it right. My dad, a kind man, would look it over critically, nod once and pronounce it fit: "Finest of its kind," he would say, as his father used to say before him, and his grandfather long before that.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s our Christmas tree went through what I came to think of as The Small Ice Age.  My mom had seen a picture in Look or Life magazine of a perfectly good green tree that had been spray-painted white and hung with royal blue ornaments and royal blue lights. My dad and I had to paint the tree with a couple of cans of white spray paint a day before bringing it inside. The white branches and blue jewelry presented a bright contrast, a modern look that went nicely, I suppose, with the blue and white decor in our little living room.

It was just godawful.  Among other things, it looked cold and hard and uninviting, like a lot of the so-called modern furniture of that period. It made me shiver. And the predominant aroma was not of a green living tree. It was of the chemicals that came along inside the aerosol can of white paint -- noxious, artificial, possibly sacrilegious, surely unAmerican.  It was embarrassing. I knew that The Unwritten Law of the Season held that trees ought to be green and there ought to be plenty of red and green lights on the tree.  The white and the blue were pretty colors, but it never seemed proper to me -- and I feared that the combination would bring us a critical write-up from The Christmas Decoration Board of Review, if not a fine or a stern upbraiding in the public prints.

But as time passed, the white tree and the spray paint and the blue lights went the way of the sack dress and the pillbox hat and the tail fin and the avocado-colored kitchen appliance, and sanity returned to the annual practice of sprucing up the place.

When The Former Party Doll Strickland and I set up housekeeping in the late 1960s, we got our first tree from Kroger in Burlington. It wasn't a lovely tree, but it was green, and it looked good in that little apartment off Trail Two not far from the Interstate.  In future years the tree would get better, and in our first house in the early 1970s, living in the far western corner of Arlington County just within that original square outline of the District of Columbia, a Christmas tree sales lot opened up near the bottom of Patrick Henry Drive just on the edge of a county park and greenway.  It was perfect. And it snowed like crazy. I got out my dad's old Flexible Flyer sled, which he had gotten for Christmas about 1912, and we hauled our new tree up the four blocks to our little box colonial in Dominion Hills.  That sled was the fastest around when I was a kid, but dragging it uphill with a seven-foot tree and a two-year-old boy aboard was slow, hard work. By the time we got it up to our place, I was ready for a couple of glasses of Christmas cheer.

I thought about that long, hard trudge up the hill in the snow the other day when it came time to bring our new nine-foot (stem to stern) Fraser fir into the house. It had sat in a washtub of water for a week, taking up good Patrick County wellwater after we found it on the lot over at Slaughter's in Floyd.  Our back deck is maybe five feet off the ground. And hauling that sodden tree up the steps and into the house was still as full of anticipation as it had been more than 50 years ago, dragging a scraggly cedar across a mile or more of broomsedge and briar before it could be tied atop the car and brought home.

Once in the house it did, indeed, look magnificent -- pretty darn close, I think, to the finest of its kind.


  1. Wonderful story Jack! Warms the heart with the spirit of Christmas and kindles our memories of deciding on the perfect tree every year with a committee of five children. Merry Christmas!

  2. I remember a white tree in Charlotte. Didn't happen again. What about you>