It’s December. The wind has been howling for a month already. The lake is frozen over… it was minus 4 degrees outside this morning. It must be time to get a tree.
Because that’s what we do around here, for fun and merriment in the Winterlands. We chop down a tree, and bring it in the house. Things aren’t claustrophobic enough, being cooped up in our homes all winter. We have to bring a tree in, too. And then we decorate it. Sparkly things, odd ornaments and do-dads from generations past. Gifts, mostly, from one friend to another. They are made with beads and noodles, paint and glue, sequins stuck on by preschool fingers. Every gap in the branches is then filled with plastic, glittering icicles, and we plug it all in to the electrical socket. Bling! We are happy. We have a tree.
I love Christmas trees. I do. But I love them before they come into my living room.
I love Christmas trees when they still grow, soft and silent, in the woods.
I can’t resist a walk through a forest after snowfall. I always find something beautiful there, in the halls of the Snow Queen. Ice crystals on spruce needles…a forgotten, now glittering robin’s nest tucked into a branch…pink circles of peppermint candy cane melted and refrozen on my child’s cheeks… As I trudge, making a path where no one else has been, snow creeps into the gap in my boot where it doesn’t quite cover my ankle. I don’t mind. A red cardinal sings to its mate in the treetops. A thermos of hot chocolate is waiting in the truck.
You can tell that I am no help in cutting a tree down. None. I am entirely captivated by the forest’s beauty. The trees are majestic and whispering, hiding rabbits and owls in secret spots. I like to be with them.
Cutting the tree is Doug’s job. He is reasonable and practical, and can definitely tell if the tree is three feet too tall to fit in the living room. Also he can work a saw. Just another of those mechanical things that I don’t do. One of my favorite family photos is of Doug, showing off with a tree for me.
“I don’t need the car brought down here,” he boasted. “I’ll just carry the tree. It’ll be faster that way.” And off he went up the snowy path to find our car. He’s a strong guy.
But one year, he wasn’t there much before Christmas. A work deadline loomed over his head, and he just didn’t have time for tromping in the woods.
“I can do this.” I thought out loud. “How hard can it be to cut down a little old Christmas tree?”
I bundled up four kids in their warmest outdoor gear, and piled them into the minivan. Off we went, to a tree farm. The pre-cut trees lined up in the driveway in neat rows, tightly tied in twine. The beautiful ones. The best of the crop. For sale.
I didn’t want them.
I wanted a different tree, a scrubby, not-quite-a-Charlie-Brown-tree. I wanted the kids to tromp through the woods with me and choose their own, unique Christmas tree. They would remember this their whole lives. Of this I was sure. This was one of those moments.
The tree farm man waved at me as I slowly pulled off the main drive. “Can I help you choose a tree?” he asked. “No, thanks. I’d like to choose my own.” I began to roll up my window and drive, when I heard him say “Ma’am, do you need a saw?”
Well I guess I did.
“Thanks,” I said. He pointed the way to the shed where I could choose a saw and a cup of cider. “We have a few saws to choose from.”
I knew he smiled. I could feel his grinning amusement as I heaved myself from the van.
“Ma’am, are you sure you want to go out and cut your own tree? Cause I could do that for you.”
“No, thanks.” I pulled myself up to power posture stance, my enormous belly protruding from my tightly stretched coat. I was nine months pregnant. “I got this.”
I was determined to make a memory for my kids this day. Not the kind of memory where mom gives birth in a forest. That couldn’t happen. I delivered long overdue with every one of my kids. Even though my due date was technically here, I knew I would still be pregnant for weeks. And sawing a tree down just might be the hard physical labor that it might take to get me into actual labor. Or not.
I drove carefully down the bumpy hill toward the first grove of trees. Every bump hurt. I began to realize that tromping through the snowy forest was perhaps not going to be possible. I bet this first grove of trees was the one I really wanted, anyway. No need to go further.
“All right, kids. Everybody out! Let’s go find our Christmas tree!”
Tears. Someone was sobbing. No, two Someones were crying. Remember that hot chocolate I mentioned? Well while driving over bumps, the whole thermos had spilled on one of the kids. It had been big enough for five, and now it was emptied in her lap, and dripping into her boots. Her sister said she felt like she had to throw up. And the Little Guy was sound asleep.
“Change of plans.” I moaned. “You all stay here. No one is going outside in the woods in December soaking wet or sick. You’ll get pneumonia before Christmas.” The oldest child offered to stay in the van and make sure there was no mischief. Wise choice.
“Okay then. I’ll take my saw, and I’ll choose a tree. Rub the frost off the window; can you see any tree you like? Which one?”
They pointed to a large blue spruce, about twenty five feet off the trail. Through virgin white, unmarred snow. I’d have to tromp, chop, and drag that thing all the way back to the van myself. No.
“How about this beauty right here?” I pointed to a giant spruce right next to the trail It was huge. Glorious.
I tried. I really tried. The branches were thick and large, and growing low down into the snow. Spruce tree needles are sharp and they hurt when they scratched my face. Never mind the needles. I couldn’t fit my large body under the low branches to get near the trunk. I rolled and pushed with my boots to get leverage, but I couldn’t stuff myself under that tree. Too pregnant.
Now I was covered in snow and my belly was cold. My hands were cold. Someone in the van was crying again. I went to the next tree over, one with obvious bare spots. I didn’t even look to see if I liked it or not. It was a tree, and it was going to be my Christmas tree. I thumped down in the snow and crawled under that tree. I sawed. I sawed and sawed and sawed some more. I was tired. I laid down on my side like a bloated hippopotamus wearing wool, and sawed at that tree with frozen fingers.
He had followed me.
“Ma’am? Can I help you now?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, you may.” Suddenly quite self conscious, I tried to sit up in the snow, under the tree, and crawl out with a scrap of dignity. I found none.
He helped me up from the snow, and I sat in the driver’s seat, huffing and puffing and cold.
“Ma’am? Is this the tree you were trying to cut? Because I don’t see any saw marks at all.”
“Anywhere. Doesn’t matter. Just cut it down and throw it on the van roof, please.” I was defeated. And sick Child wanted a bucket. Wet Child was cold. Toddler was waking up. Tween was embarrassed. Perhaps mortally, as in forever. This was definitely a memory making day, yessir.
The man cut down the tree like slicing butter, bundled the tree with twine and tied it to my roof.
Twenty bucks and a memory to cringe about for years to come.
As I drove home, we sang Jingle Bells at the top of our lungs, laughing all the way.