One of the best things about Christmas is the traditions, the habits we perpetuate year after year, often without knowing why. We have the fruitcake tradition, the mistletoe tradition, the gain twenty pounds tradition, and many others.
As an outdoorsman my favorite tradition is the Christmas tree. The classic Christmas tree is not an artificial tree, but a live one, or one that was at least recently alive. It is a huge chunk of the outdoors, dragged into the living room to cheer us up, and to remind us of what is waiting for us outside, when we get really sick of our relatives.
When I was a kid my brother and I used to go out with my dad every year at the beginning of December to cut a Christmas tree. The only evergreens in Central Texas are live oaks and junipers, commonly called cedars. These cedar trees do not in any way resemble what most people probably think of as a Christmas Tree Shape, which is an upside down V. They are round. So what we basically had was a Christmas bush.
We would spend half a day driving and walking around in a friend’s pasture, looking for that perfectly shaped cedar bush, until Dad found just what he wanted. To me, it always looked exactly like all the other bushes – round - except that it was usually farther from the road. Then Dad would cut the tree down with an axe, and we would haul it home in the back of the pickup.
Once we got our Christmas bush home, the fun began. The first order of business was to stand the bush up. Those of you who have always used fake Christmas trees may not realize that real Christmas bushes do not come with stands. Even if you try to lean them against a wall they fall over. So you have to make them stand up, which is sort of like inventing cold fusion, only it takes longer.
Dad would go out and get the rusty, five gallon bucket we used every year, fill it with large rocks, and bring it in the house. Then he and Mom would spend several hours discussing where the bush should go. Once that was settled Dad would position the bucket, remove all the rocks, and bring in the bush. He would set the bush in the bucket, and then pull it back out. In all my years of watching this event, the trunk of the bush never, not once, went all the way to the bottom of the bucket until the fullest, most attractive branch was cut off. This was the branch that caused Dad to pick this particular bush to begin with, and it always grew out of the trunk too low to be left on the tree.
So Dad would butcher the bush and set it back in the bucket, and start trying to put the rocks in around the trunk so the bush stood more or less straight, which was a physical impossibility. Whenever Dad let go of the bush it would immediately fall down. We would finally move the bush, bucket and all, to a corner, so we could keep it upright. Sometimes we had to put an eye screw in the wall, and tie the bush up with heavy string.
Then we had to turn the bush so the fullest side faced the room. This could take several more hours, since there is no fullest side to a cedar bush. The juniper is basically a large hole with a little bush around it here and there. No matter which way you turn one, it looks like you just ran over it with your pickup.
With the bush positioned, Mom would fill the bucket with water to keep the tree from turning brown before morning. The water would immediately start to leak out through holes in the bottom of the bucket, so she would wrap towels around the bucket to soak up the water. She would change the towels twice a day until the tree came down a month later. A Christmas baby would have been no more trouble.
Now it was time to string the lights, a job Dad took extremely seriously. Christmas lights in those days were actual bulbs, the size of large strawberries, painted various colors. Each screwed into its own socket, and the sockets were spaced randomly along a set of kinked, frayed wires the thickness of a number two pencil. Dad believed one set of lights should last a family forever, and be handed down for generations. New Christmas lights were not an option.
Once Dad had the lights on the tree, we would all gather round and watch, and he would plug them in. The lights never, ever, came on the first try. Dad would spend hours unscrewing the bulbs and switching them out with other bulbs from other sockets, until finally, just when he was about ready to give up, half of them would come on. This would encourage him to keep at it until he finally got most of them working.
The lights were not as bright as modern Christmas tree lights, but they compensated for this shortcoming by giving off a lot more heat, so by the time Christmas rolled around, and the bush had started to turn brown, we had to keep a bucket of water beside the tree, for use in the event of sudden combustion. No one’s Christmas presents were ever stolen in those days. The return was just not worth the risk of death by fire and/or electrocution, from stepping on the wet towels or into the bucket.
In these days, my wife and I share the job of putting up and decorating the tree, which means she puts up the tree and decorates it and I sit in my recliner and watch, sometimes offering sage advice. We have a fake tree, shaped like an upside down V, and we string it with little bitty lights, which don’t work much better than the old kind.
I miss having a real tree in the house, but I have not yet managed to start a tradition in which the wife does the chopping.
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who avoids axes, and electrocution, whenever possible. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org