We reach Thanksgiving from a winding road through autumn and exit into winter. The time available to work outside on our land is truncated more with each passing day. Sunset comes earlier. Night lasts longer.
That’s why of all the Christmas/Solstice traditions, I love trees the best.
Our little strings of electric light carry on a brave and hopeful tradition of staring straight into the darkest days of winter and calling the sun back with our bonfires. The National Christmas Tree Association says we will buy 25 million trees this year.
Years ago in the northern Chicago suburbs, we found a funky little tree farm owned by an elderly couple whose trees were what some might call neglected, and we called natural. We would wander the farm in search of our dream tree. This wonderful farm had four fields of evergreens separated by a winding path through a meadow and a marsh. Sometimes we walked through snow and ice and some years we hopped across the lowest points on wet, wooden pallets.
All four of us were hunting for our own interpretation of the wildest little lady in the woods — the ones with crown of Dr. Seus branches at the top and lots of negative space for ornaments. We would all find our favorite and make our case, form coalitions and negotiate till the tree was chosen.
Then we joined hands around our choice and sing a free-form 4-part harmony version of Oh Christmas Tree, that is never the same twice. Doug sawed it down and we lugged it back to the little shack, warmed by a wood stove where the owners would take your money and give you a home-baked cookie.
Then their ambitious son took over the business and groomed all the trees into perfect cones. If a tree was too unsymmetrical to cone, he cut it down. That last year we wandered through what seemed like a warzone and managed to find a few wildish ones hiding out along on the edges.
My fantasy was always that we could bring all our favorites home and turn our little living room into an enchanted forest. But Christmas trees aren’t cheap, and it always seemed like a frivolous dream till the year we bought our land in 2003.
We closed the deal the Friday before Thanksgiving week and drove straight from the lawyer’s office to our land where we set up a folding table and shared Champaign and cookies with our daughters and a dear friend. Then we began to wander among the 20 some acres planted in young pine and spruce for three of the wildest specimens.
That has been our tradition ever since. From the day after Thanksgiving till the 12th Day of Christmas, we dwell in a tiny woods. It’s a peaceful place. If you want a book from the book shelves, you’d better plan ahead. To turn the thermometer down at night and up in the morning takes a little strategy. The chairs are pushed in closer.
We still look for wildish trees, but now they are mostly chosen because they were crowding their neighbors. This year the trees aren’t quite filling the room the way they usually do because we selected all double-trunked trees. They are a little thinner, but they have left behind healthier habitat.
In January when they leave the house spraying brittle needles, they will be stacked in the back yard to create a little shelter for any critters who come by. In the spring when we rake up the last of the leaves and shred them, the tree branches will be chipped up and added to the compost pile. The trunks get sawed into fire wood. Some years we are organized enough to put one aside for next year’s Yule log.
Oscar Mayer used to say on factory tours that they used every bit of the cow but the moo. Our extravagance of trees are used to the last needle, and appreciated every step of the way.
It’s getting dark outside. I can see the last tangerine touches of sunset catching the underside of some deeply ridged clouds.
After the sun has slipped away, the only lights are the cool sparkle of LED illumination shining through pinecone-shaped plastic. It is enough to get me through the long, dark nights ahead. They are a little beacon reminding me that the even if the best things in life are never actually free – they don’t have to cost the world.