Musings from the Darkroom: The Christmas Tree

2 christmas pictures

Thought I might share this with you again.  It’s that time of the year.

Getting the tree up and decorated after Thanksgiving signals the beginning of the Christmas season and grants official permission to be excited about all that looking forward to and celebrating Christmas has to offer:  family, friends, fun, food, music, memories, the Savior’s birth and, yes, presents under the tree.  This year has me longing for the Christmas tree outings my father, brother and I made each holiday season.

Not too soon after Thanksgiving, the sight of my father piddling around the workbench under the carport and the rhythmic metallic grating sound of file across the business end of my grandfather’s old Kentucky ax meant the yearly ritual was forthcoming.  Surplus paper mill work gloves, leather chaps, freshly sharpened ax and baling twine were all located and loaded into the family Oldsmobile.

I have no idea why we had a roll of sisal baler twine.  We did not live on a farm.  The only time I recall ever using it was once a year for the Christmas tree.  We didn’t use much but we still had a whole roll.  I would bet my brother’s best clip-on tie that the roll of twine is still somewhere in my father’s workshop.  After packing the trunk, my brother and I would jockey for front seat position on the long bench seat of the 63 Olds.  Eventually, one of us would give up the window and slide to the hump, neither of us ever willing to concede a place in the front. Off into the west Alabama countryside we drove to find the perfect Christmas tree, a cedar tree.

I remember being fully astonished when I realized that Christmas trees could actually be other species besides cedar or, worse yet, store-bought and even aluminum or plastic.  To us, cedar trees were Christmas trees.  This was not by accident.  The regional black belt soil with underlying Selma chalk limestone is littered with cedar trees.  Besides being plentiful, when good Christmas tree height they are the perfect shape, have fairly dense foliage and fill the home with a woodsy-fresh spicy aroma.

In the course of his regular travels to and from work, or on the way to the local air strip, Dad sometimes would have already had his eye on a tree and retrieval was all that was required.  If not, we would drive the back roads searching for an appropriately Christmas shaped tree.  The best trees were always lone trees in a clearing with even growth on all sides, but they were hard to find.

I don’t recall ever wandering onto just any property for a tree, but the truth is that I am not so sure that sometimes that wasn’t the case.  There was a fair amount of timber property owned by the local paper mill to which we presumably had access, especially out by the airport or across the highway by the union hall.   But I am not so sure about the legal status of the trees we harvested north of town across the Black Warrior river bridge on the road past the turnoff to Runaway Branch.   It was certainly tempting after a long search, spotting a particularly nice looking tree with only two or three strands of barbed wire between it and us.

I reckon there is the possibility that some might brand us Christmas tree rustlers.  But really, it’s not like we were stealing cattle or shooting someone else’s turkeys, we were just gettin’ the Christmas tree.  Later on after my brother and I started making the trip on our own, we usually ended up taking trees more legally on railroad right-of-ways.  After they grew to a certain size, the railroad company came through with sprayers to kill them back anyway.  We were simply providing them a more noble ending.

When we were young, Dad wielded the ax.  As we grew he let my brother and finally even me take turns at the year’s honor, always with admonition to not cut off a foot.  Getting to and dragging the tree back through the Alabama brush was a chore.  Dad donned his cowboy boots and chaps for tree hunting trips.  The only things separating my brother and me from the briars were our Sears toughskin jeans and dollar store sneakers.  Toughskin jeans were akin to wearing chaps, at least for the knees.  They were guaranteed hand-me-downs.

We only forgot to wear long sleeves or bring gloves once.  A cedar tree scratches and itches bare skin more than any other evergreen.  The sap sticks to your skin like gummy superglue and leaves a black stain that only time and new skin cells can remove.  But oh, how the smell made the drag back to the car worth all the trouble.  Even the frightful timber, space, timber, space, timber walk back across the old wooden railroad trestle seemed to pass more quickly while dragging the tree.  Long after my brother and I had matured beyond Santa Claus, we still made the yearly pilgrimage to the same set of tracks, talking about life and walking a good country mile or more from the car in search of the right tree.

One of the key features of the 1963 Oldsmobile was the size of the trunk.  No matter how big the tree, we could usually get the bulk of it in the trunk and not have to tie it to the roof, even though we had enough twine to tie a forest to the car.  Once home, the bottom squared up with a hand saw, placed in a bucket of water and leaning against the clothes line, the number one axiom of Christmas tree harvesting again becomes evident.  That is, they grow an extra 2 feet on the drive home.  So, we trim a little more off the bottom, being careful not to mess up the shape.  Even with 10-foot ceilings, it seemed every year the very top would have to be trimmed in order to mount the star.

The above picture on the left was taken when I was 4, the very first Christmas in our new home on Strawberry Street.  The cedar Christmas tree remains bent from being too tall and the star is not yet placed.  Yes, those are strings of popped corn hung like garland on the tree.  That was an old school tradition my mother’s mother always enjoyed.  I recall sitting around the back hall table with my siblings, stringing popcorn and having my grandmother scold me for eating more than I strung.

I was 9 at the time the next picture was taken in 1969.  For some reason we were late getting to the tree that year and Dad proudly showed up one day with a store-bought fur of some sort, shipped down south from some Yankee tree farm.  There’s no telling what he paid for it, but we were like, “Aww, Dad. That’s not a Christmas tree!” It’s the only year I can ever remember not having a cedar tree that we harvested ourselves.

Christmas 1969

I do love that Christmas 1969 picture. The more notable things that make me smile are the pajamas, the old 19 inch black and white TV, the Wilson football, the vintage Easy Bake Oven, my big sister’s curlers, my little sister’s unwavering gaze at Mrs. Beasley, our crew cuts, my brother’s ears and the store-bought Christmas tree.

Enjoy your tree this year and the memories it will bring for years to come.

Merry Christmas.