Getting the Christmas tree up after Thanksgiving signals the beginning of the Christmas season and gives 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 thinking about getting the Christmas tree with my father and brother.
The yearly ritual started with Dad making sure the ax was sharp and that we had plenty of twine in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile for the drive out into the west Alabama countryside. The blackbelt soil, named for its rich color, and the underlying Selma chalk limestone is littered with cedar trees. If Dad had not already noticed a tree he wanted, we would drive the back roads searching for an appropriately Christmas shaped tree.
The best trees were always lone trees in a clearing with uninhibited 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 it was certainly tempting after a long search and then spotting a particularly nice looking tree with only two or three strands of barbed wire between us and the prize. No, 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, but as we grew he let my brother and finally even me take turns each year at having the year’s honor. Dragging the tree back was always a chore. You only forgot long sleeves and gloves once. A cedar tree will scratch and itch bare skin as much as any evergreen and the sap will stick to your skin like gummy superglue, leaving a black stain that does not easily disappear. But 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 wooden trestle seemed to pass more quickly dragging the tree. Long after we were past the Santa Claus stage my brother and I made the yearly pilgrimage to the same set of tracks, talking about life, searching, walking sometimes a good country mile or so from the car for the right tree.
One of the advantages of owning a 1963 Oldsmobile was the size of the trunk. No matter how big the tree, we could get the bulk of it in the trunk and not have to tie it to the roof. 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 becomes evident. That is, they always look smaller in the field. So, we trim a little more off the bottom without messing up the shape. Even with 10-foot ceilings, it still seemed every year the very top would have to be trimmed in order to get the star on the top.
The above picture on the left was taken when I was 4, the very first Christmas in the house on Strawberry Street. The cedar Christmas tree still is bent from being too tall with the star not yet placed. Yes, those are strings of popped corn hung like garland on the tree. I was 9 by the time the next picture was taken in 1968. For some reason we were late getting to the tree that year and Dad proudly showed up one day with one of those fancy store-bought furs of some sort. 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.
I do love that Christmas 1968 picture. The more notable things that make me smile are the pajamas, the Wilson football, the Easy Bake Oven, my sister’s curlers, my little sister’s unwavering gaze at Mrs. Beasley, 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.