A recent article in another newspaper got me to thinking about real Christmas trees. In the article, both buyers and sellers recognized that corner Christmas tree lots have become a rare commodity.
When I was a kid, shopping for the Christmas tree was one of the very few things that my dad did with my sister and me- whom he collectively called "The Girl Children" - without Mom's stabilizing influence. She wisely spent her time alone in the house, enjoying a wee bit of silence and calm before the holiday craziness erupted.
Of course, Mom was Mom, and she made the rules. The first rule of Christmas: No tree will enter the house before Dec. 15. Mom was a world-class worrier, and she fretted every December that a too-dry tree would cause a fire, leaving us homeless during a frigid Iowa winter.
If you couldn't have a tree before Dec. 15, you also couldn't cover every flat surface in every room of the house with Christmas decorations before then either. You couldn't hang mistletoe, bells or stuffed reindeer from the doorways before then, and you certainly couldn't decorate the windows with spray-on stencil images. You couldn't even think about baking and decorating the dozens of gingerbread cookies that were part of the tradition until post-Dec. 15.
But, back to the tree. Dad and The Girl Children had completely different ideas on how to shop for a tree. Dad: "Look, this place has trees. Let's pick one and take it home." The Girl Children: "Gee, there are a couple of trees here that might work, but let's go to every single place in town that sells trees, shake out as many as we can, and then go back - usually to the first place we visited - and choose one."
Finding the right tree was complicated by differing ideas of what a good tree really was. Dad wanted one that would easily fit through the front door and require a minimum of effort to get into the stand. The Girl Children wanted the biggest evergreen that could possibly be dragged home - a real ceiling toucher that spanned the west side of the living room.
Once a tree was selected, The Girl Children eagerly awaited the opportunity to decorate with ornaments collected over decades, given as presents by neighbors and hand-me-downs from relatives who had passed on.
Dad has always been a do-it-yourselfer. No store-made Christmas tree stand for him, no sirree! He had transformed the bottom of an old barrel into a tree stand, complete with crossed wooden arms that held the tree upright. Invariably, the tree trunk needed to be evened off. First a bit off one side, then a bit off the other. Nope, still not right. The process would begin anew, and The Girl Children would wait and wait and wait.
Once the tree was exactly even, there was a precise decorating order: first the lights (back when one bad light would take out an entire string), then the ornaments were placed with great care in their traditional locations, and finally plenty of silvery icicles were flung with great abandon onto the tree. The tree lights were plugged in as soon as it was dark outside and unplugged before we went to bed - added protection against burning down the house, you know.
Eventually, Mom decided to reduce the likelihood of tragedy and bought a safe, artificial tree. Oh, the horrors! The Girl Children decried the end of Christmas as they knew it. Dad, although quiet on the topic, probably smiled to himself and imagined how much more free time he would have when the annual tree hunt was just a memory.
As it turned out, presents fit as well under the fake tree, and Mom slept better in the knowledge that a dried-out tree wouldn't be the ruination of the Wallaces.
In 1986, Mom suggested we get a real tree. By that time, we had all grown accustomed to dragging the Target box out of the basement, assembling the branches, poking the correct tabs into the holes and fluffing out the artificial needles that had been crammed into a cardboard container for the previous 48 weeks (yes, it went up earlier because it wasn't going to destroy the house). . No, said The Girl Children, now all grown up. We're fine with our fake tree.
Mom died the next spring, and I think we all regretted not having the one last real tree adventure.
Barbara Wallace Hughes is managing editor of The Messenger.