The ritual of buying and decorating Christmas trees took me by surprise when I first lived here in America. The fact that so many people were putting up their trees really early in my estimation - the day after Thanksgiving, in November for heaven’s sake! - then whipping them down on Boxing Day (and no Boxing Day in America either!!!), just seemed ludicrous to me. Had no one ever heard of the twelve days of Christmas? Didn’t Americans know it’s unlucky to remove a Christmas tree before January 6th?? Clearly not! When I was growing up, most people put up their trees about a week before Christmas - though there were those who stuck to tradition and put up the tree on Christmas Eve - then took them down on January 6th. Mind you, some were fed up with the needles all over the floor, broke down around January 4th and took their chances with Luck when they chucked out the tree.
To me, the festive season in childhood would be nothing without a picture of the Christmas tree in my mind’s eye, or rather, bringing the tree home, and to this day I confess, I begrudge paying for a tree. My brother, in honor of our childhood, always goes to a Christmas tree farm where he can choose and cut the tree himself. It brings back memories you see, of childhood, and Christmas tree theft.
OK, so before you think I come from a family of crazy kleptomaniacs, let me explain. Kleptomaniacs, maybe, but crazy - never! Or maybe it IS the other way around ....
When I was born my parents were living in a “tied” cottage (which meant it was tied to the land and the job) on a farm in the middle of a massive conifer plantation. In those days it was “Crown” property, with the farms leased to families who had worked the land for generations, the lease being passed down from father to son. Those farms were sold off many years ago now, with the conifer plantation now under the jurisdiction of Britain’s Forestry Commission. There was also a park - in my early childhood barely used, but now a very well-attended tourist attraction - that housed an ornamental collection of conifers and broad-leafed trees from around the world. I loved that park as a child, but today it has changed so much, with a large visitor center and places to have coffee and tea and lunches, I can hardly bear to walk there.
The proximity to the main plantations meant that it was easy to acquire a Christmas tree and there was tacit understanding that workers on the farms could choose their own, though you were expected to be pretty circumspect about when you marched off with your tree, and you certainly didn’t go for something the size of the thing that graced Trafalgar Square. So, all the time we lived in cottages tied to the farm, we were OK for a tree at no cost. Then we moved - but the house was still not too far from the forest, about four miles as the crow flies. Close enough to walk, for a fit man - especially one who had become rather used to having a free tree.
I always knew when Dad went out to choose our Christmas tree. I’d see him gathering the necessary bits and pieces he needed for the expedition. There was a length of sacking, some heavy twine, a small saw and his knife. Then, as soon as we were in bed, I’d hear the back door open, and the sound of my father’s footsteps as he made his way up the road, the dog at heel. He would return several hours later, his boots heavy on the path. That’s when I’d scamper downstairs, to run into his arms and smell the aroma of pine on his jacket. Putting my face against his cold cheek, I knew the Christmas tree was outside, waiting until the following evening, when it would be raised in the sitting room, the lights woven around its branches, and then decorated with old baubles and tinsel. Then of course a bulb would explode, the lights would go off, and hey - its Christmas!!
One year my father agreed to take my brother and myself along on the expedition for the first time - John was six and I was ten. We were wrapped up in our winter coats, with thick socks inside our Wellington boots, scarves wound around our necks and woolen hats pulled down - it was a wonder we could see. We went on our way in the dark, the dog slightly ahead - she knew the way. Dad pointed out the stars above, telling us stories of space and rocket ships, of exploration, predicting that one day, maybe not too far in the future, a man would walk on the moon. Then we were there, our legs aching, our cheeks glowing, our noses red and runny, and our eyes peeled for another human being. Dad was inspecting each tree as we walked, hardly speaking, after all, we no longer lived in the forest, and that tacit approval for what we were doing had been relinquished years before. Then, out of the blue, my brother - never known for being quiet for long - let us know, in a loud voice, that he had seen “the one.” At the top of his voice he yelled, “Over here, Dad - get the saw in here!”
I rugby tackled him to the ground, one hand around his neck. “Shut up!” I said, through gritted teeth into his ear. The dog looked both ways, then to my father, as if to say, "Did we really have to bring them?". He shook his head. “Too big, that one.” We scrambled to our feet and walked on. The tree was chosen, and my father dropped to his knees to saw away at the trunk. With a deft hand he used twine to close the branches, wrapped the tree in sacking, creating a handle with more twine. Then we were off - the walk home was before us, the air was crisp, the ground hard, and the stars shone ever more brightly.
Hot cocoa and an open fire greeted us when we walked into the kitchen. The dog hunkered down beside the grate, and chairs were pulled up as we took off our cold coats and damp scarves. We toasted thick slices of crusty bread over the coals, to be spread with best butter - a late suppertime treat before bed. The tree was outside, still wrapped in sackcloth. And though we knew we’d have to go through a bulb or two blowing out, and the frustration of watching dad replace them and fiddling with the socket until the room was illuminated, we were filled with excitement. Our Christmas had begun. And we hadn’t been caught!
Wishing you all a skirmish-free week ahead - do your best to avoid the shops (do we really need the "stuff" anyway?) and many blessings to you and yours, and for a Holiday season filled with peace and joy. Especially Peace - our world needs Peace so very much.