The Christmas Tree
This is a short Christmas memoir I wrote in 2020.
"Wait. What do you mean you don’t know when we’re getting the Christmas tree?” I asked, horrified. I immediately dropped the crimson sweater I’d been attempting to fold, and planned to wear for Christmas, onto the bed.
“Well, everyone is arriving late the day before Christmas Eve,” Merm explained.
“But, Mermmmmm,” I protested. “We can’t not get the tree as a family!” I wandered out of the tiny bedroom to pace the uneven floor of my rented duplex. Plus,”—I stared down at the sparkling diamond ring on my finger— “this is Roger’s first year getting to experience our tradition.” Before Merm could respond, Dad interrupted with a chuckle. Even though I’m over three hundred miles away, I could practically see him wearing his wool slippers, sitting in his overstuffed chair right below the white tail deer mount in their living room, putting his palm to his bearded face.
“Donald,” Merm snapped. I could also picture her leaning forward in her chair, wearing her patented magenta Patagonia jacket, fixing him with her best withering stare from across the room.
It’s my turn to palm my forehead. The habitual, family histrionics were in full swing.
“Oh, Annie,” Dad intoned with another chuckle. “I’m sorry, but it’s every year like clockwork. You’re pulling a Mrs. Cratchit.”
Dad, in his captivating storytellers voice, explained exactly what I’d been thinking. Ever since my brothers and I flew the coup for different colleges around the country, the combination of disparate time zones, schedules, travel methods, significant others’ plans, and life in general, made it trickier to carve out time to ceremoniously pick out and cut down the Christmas tree, a tradition we’d had for twenty-five years.
“And we always figure it out, don’t we, dear?”
“We do, but first, I must panic like Mrs. Cratchit. It’s tradition.” “Let’s get everyone on the phone,” Dad said.
He pressed some buttons to loop my brothers into the conversation. As we waited, I stopped pacing and stared out my living room window at the snow-covered street, thinking of Christmases past. When we were little, every year when we’d pick out the tree, one of us would misplace a hat or glove, or we’d outgrown our snow-pants or our boots. It would take a miracle to get us out the door, but when we were finally bundled up, we’d file into Dad’s truck and lumber down the road, the snow whining and crunching beneath the tires, my brothers and I stuffed like sardines in the back, all elbows and crankiness. And just when we all thought our sanity would snap like a rubber band, we’d arrive at the Christmas Tree Farm. We’d lope into the snow, eager to trudge through the mammoth drifts, and hunt for the perfect Christmas tree together.
Dad’s voice pulled me back. “Alright, we’ve got everyone here. So, Mom is pulling a Mrs. Cratchit.” We collectively groaned.
“She always does this,” Keeghan said.
“Mom, it’s going to be fine. Don’t freak out,” Mike added.
“Does this mean we all vote yes to getting the Christmas tree as a family on Christmas Eve?” There’s a chorus of, “Yes!”
“See,” Dad said, a smile evident in his voice, “we’re going to pull this off like we always do.” And, then, before we started chattering about other things, we share a brief but unspoken reverence for our family tradition.
On Christmas Eve afternoon, I looked around the bright kitchen. Everyone in my family resembled puffy marshmallows in our mismatched winter gear, making the kitchen seem small. This year, unlike many others, was gloriously mild in temperature with no wind, which was rare for Northern Minnesota. We’re all ready to go with one exception.
Merm still stood by the stove in her red and white plaid pajamas, her hair sticking up in the back, fiddling with something. “We’re not ready,” she shouted over her shoulder. “The apple cider. We gotta have that! It’s tradition.”
“The apple cider is so good,” Keeghan insisted.
“It’s true,” I confirmed. I clomped across the hardwood floor in my giant Herman Munster boots to help.
“Good grief,” Dad muttered.
“Is this part of the tradition, too?” Roger asked. “Bickering about the cider?”
There’s a chorus of, “Always.”
Behind me, I heard Dad instruct everyone to get into the car while Merm and I finished up the cider. Once there’s tendrils of steam unfurling around us, I sent Merm to get dressed while I carefully poured the sweet, amber liquid into a giant thermos and snagged some mugs. With the goods in tow, I thundered out the door in my too-heavy boots across the driveway through the freshly fallen snow. When we’re all in the truck, it’s almost impossible to shut the doors. We’re packed so snugly that it’s impossible to determine where one person starts and another ends. My boots squeaked against the flooring as I tried to negotiate a more comfortable position. Despite our discomfort, there’s a palpable excitement in the cozy cab.
By the time we arrived at the Christmas Tree Farm, we were all eager to pile out of the too-warm cab of Dad’s truck. Bundled up like the kid from A Christmas Story, we ambled down the rows of trees, hunting for the perfect one. Ever since I can remember, we always rotated on who got to pick the tree. This year was not only my turn but it was also the first year that I was going to cut it down too.
“How about this one?” Merm asked, gesturing to a beautiful blue spruce, which was both of our favorites.
I considered the tree for a moment, unsure. “Yeah, but what about that one side. It’s all lopsided.” As Merm and I continued to debate the merits of the tree, and how one could rotate the lopsided part to the back of the room, Mike trudged in large, loping strides toward a monstrous Douglass fir. “I’d pick this one.”
Everyone’s gaze swiveled toward him.
“Jesus,” Merm said, eyes watering. “We’d have to cut a hole in the roof for that thing to fit! Although if we cut it right h—”
Her voice faded as I hoofed it to the next row, searching the field for a tree that called to me. “See anything?” Roger asked.
Squinting and pulling my jacket tighter around me, I thought I spotted one in the far off distance. I was so sure that I’d found a magical tree, so hand in hand Roger and I made the trek our way down the row of trees to find another dud. Standing right next the tree, I found I was horribly mistaken. I felt like Mr. Olivander who handed Harry the wrong wand. No, no definitely not!
Fighting a wave of disappointment, we plodded back to the group to find Dad and Keeghan in the truck, and Merm and Mike standing next to another possibile tree.
As Merm said, “How about this one?” Mike said, “Isn’t Mooch supposed to pick the tree?” at the same time.
Before I could respond, Dad shouted from the truck. “Get a move on! The baby is freezing!”
“Hush!” Mike said. “See, this is why mine is the best option.” He pointed back in the direction of the monstrous tree he wanted.
“Well...” I mused.
“Let’s all get back in the truck and do another loop,” Dad said.
And so, we all stuffed ourselves back into the truck to do another loop. Eventually, the perfect tree finally revealed itself: a slim and understated, but gorgeous Douglass fir with enough space for all our beloved ornaments.
Excitedly, I grabbed the saw, got down on my knees, and cut down the tree. As Dad and Mike carried and loaded up the tree into the truck, Merm collected some trimmed branches.
“So, what did you think, Roger?” Merm asked, handing out mugs of cider.
As always, a feeling of gratitude fluttered over me the moment I curled my fingers around the mug of steaming cider. While it was a huge pain to lug all this stuff with us, it was wonderful to sip on after trudging through all that snow.
“So cool,” my future husband replied. “Best tree ever. I also didn’t know you guys used such a special saw.”
“A Swedish saw,” Mike supplied.
We sipped on our cider and listened to my brother explain the significance of the saw we’ve always used to cut down the Christmas tree. When we arrived back home, my brothers hefted the tree inside and twisted it into the stand. I leaned against the doorframe and inhaled the potent scent of pine and snow as it permeated and cooled the living room. While we left the tree to fully decorate after diner, Merm and I wrestled with the tangled strands of white lights, taking turns wrapping it around and around the tree as the sky darkened outside and the room illuminated with the soft glow of the tree.
After dinner, we turned on Christmas carols in the background, and took turns decorating the tree. With ceremony, Merm handed each one of us a bulb— which were passed down to my Dad from his grandmother— and placed them on the tree with care. Then, we adorned the tree with little straw stars and pewter animals, prized ornaments from my Merm’s mother, and we finished with trinkets we made as kids: wreaths made out of pipe cleaners, painted bulbs rolled in glitter, and corks with golden tinsel stapled to the top. And, then, as a grand finale to our Christmas tree tradition, Mike climbed onto Dad’s back and placed the golden angel he made out of a pinecone as a child on top of the tree. We clapped and whistled, and then quietly admired the tree. I silently retreated to the back corner of the room to admire the scene, and then, it happened: the Christmas spirit—an incandescent joy— spread warmly throughout my chest.
“We did it,” I whispered.
As we continued to gaze at the tree, I realized that this has never been an easy tradition to accomplish for one reason or another, but it’s one we’d come to protect and treasure together as a family.