Dancing Around the Christmas tree

I grew up in the south where we didn’t herald the Christmas season with our first snowfall or by trudging through a frozen field to cut our Christmas tree. For us, the season began when Aunt Marge and her friend Sandy pulled into St. Petersburg, Florida just after Thanksgiving. They were usually driving a salt-splattered sedan with Montana plates and pulling a trailer full of Christmas trees. They sold the trees in the parking lot of Allendale Methodist Church where my brothers and I helped on the lot during the weeks before the Holiday. Marge and Sandy used the trees to help pay for their trip. I suppose my Mom and Dad received a free tree in exchange for our labors.

Those Montana fir trees were our only tangible link to the kind of Christmas we saw on television. We never had a white Christmas. We never rode a sleigh “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house”. And Frosty the Snowman never came to life on our front lawn—probably because our front lawn was always a lawn.

I was in my twenties and living in Canada before I saw my first snowfall. We certainly had our share of white Christmases up there. Living in places like Canada, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Ohio afforded us plenty of opportunities to cut our own trees. When we moved back to the south, we still had fresh-cut trees from my Mom and Dad’s friend Gerry, who owned a Christmas tree farm near Burnsville, North Carolina. He sold them to big retailers by the truckload, but he allowed us to cut any tree on his lot for $25. We picked out the perfect tree, his guys cut it and bundled it, and we hauled it home on top of our car.

Sometimes we got carried away with not having a limit on the size of the tree. Like the time we learned that some tree-stands have a height limit. Our home at the time had cathedral ceilings and could accommodate a very tall tree so we picked out the largest tree we could fit on our car. I installed it in the stand, placed it in the living room, and left for a few days to attend a meeting. Karen began the decorating process in my absence.

As she remembers it, she was admiring the tree after she had decorated it and noticed it leaning. On closer inspection, it was not just leaning, it was slowly falling. She grabbed it to hold it up and realized it would not stand back upright on its own. What to do?

She began removing any breakable ornaments within reach as she scouted the room for the cordless phone (no cellphone in those days). She pushed the tree upright, ran for the phone, and rushed back to grab the tree as it toppled again. My brother Don, who lived about twenty minutes away, came to the rescue.

After that, we bought more modest sized trees—trees that were appropriate for the stands that held them up. Karen also insisted on a new family tradition of weighting the base of our trees with cement blocks and tying them to the wall with fishing line.

After Dad died and Mom left the mountains, we lost our Gerry-connection and began buying our trees from the Busy Elf on Highway 82 in Terrell county. When he went out of business, we looked to the small operation in a parking lot on Westover Road—a place that reminds me of my time selling trees for Aunt Marge. My Christmas tree experience has come full circle after seventy years.

Aunt Marge was actually my mother’s aunt. She and Sandy were of my grandparents’ generation. They had been in the military during World War II and had traveled the world running a USO unit. Marge and Sandy were the type of larger-than-life characters that every family seems to have. Why they settled in Montana I don’t know. Perhaps it was because they were the loud and flamboyant side of our quiet, conservative family—the life of every Christmas party they attended. The memory of two old ladies dancing around a Christmas tree tickles me to this day. Marge and Sandy were accepted for who they were, and their “special friendship” was never discussed. I looked forward to seeing them every year—except for having to sell all those trees.

To me, Aunt Marge’s trees were beautiful and perfect. In the 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown purposefully chooses an unattractive Christmas tree to decorate. He did it as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, it feels like Charlie Brown was right. Christmas has been hijacked by the consumer market. Christmas is all about Cyber Monday, Black Friday, and the number of shopping days before Christmas.

I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas. It is, after all, a Christian holiday. Some of our neighbors have erected an eight-foot-tall menorah on their front lawn and placed a sign that wishes us a Happy Hanukkah. It makes me happy to see them outside with their children decorating their house for their holiday.

The origin of the Christmas tree is wrapped in myth and legend. Some say the tradition began in Germany during the Renaissance. Others suggest that it evolved from the pagan worship of the evergreen tree that appeared to thrive during the winter when all other trees (which represented their “gods”) appeared to be sick. But whatever its origin, the Christmas tree is a symbol that I look forward to bringing into my house again this year. One reason it is so special is that our tree was sustainably grown and harvested by farmers like Gerry, sold in parking lots by entrepreneurs like Aunt Marge, and enjoyed by children who have never built a snowman. And at the end of the season, it will be recycled into wood mulch.

We had an artificial tree for several years. It was okay at the time. Our parents downsized to small, table-top trees after we all left home, which was also okay. They were reminiscent of the Charlie Brown trees, but they were easy to decorate for aging parents and they still held the spirit of Christmas. The Christmas tree, no matter what kind we choose, is the symbol of a season of love. It shelters the gifts. It holds ornaments that represent a lifetime of collecting. And it reminds us of Christmases past. It is something we can gather around and remember how much we have to be thankful for. The real holiday season begins for me with a Thanksgiving dinner, is followed by putting up the Christmas tree, and ends when we take the tree down after the new year.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving when health experts were pleading with us to forgo big family celebrations, the airports were packed, and the roadways were clogged anyway. The draw of family was too powerful. Perhaps that COVID warning and our determination to ignore it is a reminder of what the holidays are all about. We just can’t imagine the holidays without family. It seems ironic that it took a pandemic to show us the true meaning of Christmas—health and happiness, family and friends. I, for one, don’t care how many presents are under the tree this year. I would gladly give up all my gifts in exchange for a healthy family sitting around a Christmas tree or—if we want to pay tribute to Aunt Marge—dancing around the living room.

It was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!                                   Charles Dickens

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