When I was thirteen, we stopped having traditional Christmases. Twenty-plus years of shopping, decorating, and cooking for six children had worn my mother out. Mom and Dad and I fled the Midwest for Florida that year. I still feel guilty, leaving my older siblings with a crummy artificial tree while I frolicked among sable palms. On the other hand, they were delighted to have the house to themselves, unsupervised.
Years later, when I met Barry and his family, I was astounded to find all the Christmas traditions, alive and well. Here was a family that actually decorated the house and played carols on the piano. They wrapped every single present, including the ones that go in the stockings, embellishing them with ribbons and bows. Barry was famous for his creativity at disguising presents, as well as for doing his wrapping between midnight and 5 a.m.
The house was full of holiday goodies, buckeyes to bourbon balls, artichoke dip with King’s Hawaiian bread, spinach balls, Chex mix, and homemade ice cream. One year, there was a crown pork roast, with paper frills that we put on our fingers as puppets. Grandma always sent a massive box of homemade cookies, each icebox cookie or cherry chew wrapped individually,
As if this wasn’t enough, the Stellrechts did not merely buy a Christmas tree. They always cut their tree. In Ohio, for many years, this entailed a drive to Timbuk Tree Farm. There was a lot of walking around in the mud — “How about this one? This one?” and finally, “This one!” Then each family member would take a turn on their knees, sawing at the base with a bow saw until the tree fell down. An ancient school bus came around to pick up chilled people and their trees and return them to the farm hall, with a crackling wood fire, hot chocolate, and carols blasted over Army-style PA speakers.
Arriving home with the tree, there was still work to do. The bottom had to be re-sawn, providing Barry’s sister Julie with a slice of wood to make into an ornament. The tree was set up and festooned with lights and silver garland, which they call “rope” to distinguish it from the tinsel.
There were boxes and boxes of ornaments, made of glass, wood, paper, metal, fabric — even a plaster Santa that weighs a ton (and always goes on a fat, sturdy branch!). They represented school projects, gifts from old friends, memories. The ornament with the smoke alarm received new batteries, while an ancient angel perched on the top branch. We spent more time discussing the “ormanents” than actually hanging them!
Meanwhile, a pot of oyster stew bubbled on the stove, a tradition from Dave’s family. On the farm in Wisconsin, with plenty of home-grown meat and produce, I bet those Christmas Eve canned oysters were a treat! It reminded me of Christmas Eve with my family in South Carolina — we’d dig fresh oysters from the mud, clean ‘em, roast ‘em, and slurp ‘em out of the shell. No Christmas trees, but we Schultes did have some traditions.
Julie and her family have continued the tree tradition in Ohio, visiting Timbuk Tree Farm every year with their two kids. Barry’s parents retired and moved to Camano Island in 1997, choosing a home with a view of Port Susan…across their neighbor’s tiny Christmas tree farm. A mixed blessing, as the darn trees grow higher every year.
In December, Dave and Sharon march across the street with their bow saw, select the biggest view-blocker they can find, and carry it home. One year, they cut down a hemlock –free, but lousy for decorating. All the old traditions continue: Christmas music on the record player, the familiar ornaments, oyster stew. Even the precious leaded tinsel, removed from the tree each year and saved for the next, because you can’t buy it.
This year, the day was cloudy and cool. I’d gone into the bedroom to put on an extra sweater and find my hat. I hesitated, then grabbed the camera. I knew we had digital photos of the tree-cutting from 1999; surely we didn’t need more of the same? Outside the front door, I stopped in my tracks.
What’s this I see? The garden cart — are we going to roll the tree back, instead of carrying it? When my eye fell on the chainsaw, I started laughing. This was family tradition, with a twist!
Dave and Sharon had already selected their tree, a monstrous 20-foot Douglas Fir. Dave disappeared from sight when he crawled into the lower branches to hack some off with a hatchet. Then, with a loud roar, he fired up the chainsaw and began trimming branches up to 6 feet from the ground. Sharon and I loaded them into the cart, and Barry gamely hauled three heavy loads to the chipping pile. One branch held a tiny hidden bird’s nest, to bring us good luck.
Then Dave sawed most of the way through the bottom. Sharon and Barry, on their knees, did the last bit with the bow saw, the traditional way. I took photos and hollered “timberrrrrrrrr” when it finally toppled.
Six-and-a-half feet of the trunk went to the woodpile, and four feet of silly, straggly stuff was lopped off the top. We threw the rest atop the cart and dragged it, ignominiously, back to the house.
What do you do with a tree that’s nine and a half feet tall and ten feet across? Prune it carefully! As Sharon said, trimming away with her favorite pruners, “It won’t grow back if I mess up.” Even trimmed to eight feet across, there’s only one place for it: Smack dab in the middle of the living room. It dominates the room; when you sit in a chair on one side of the living room, all you see is TREE. You can’t see anyone on the other side of the room.
Remember that silly, straggly branch that got lopped off the top? It didn’t go to the chipping pile. It’s right here, in our living room, decorated with our collection of ornaments. It may be the funniest Charlie Brown tree ever, but it has two advantages: You can walk all the way around it, and yes, you can still see the person on the other side!