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Christmas trees past and present


My wife Becky agreed that our huge, old artificial Christmas tree was being used its last season after it was assembled and half of its lights didn’t work. To tell the truth, I had never liked the tree, even when it was fully decorated and truly beautiful. It lacked something, and I didn’t know what it was until this year.

A couple of days after we’d set up our tree, our oldest son Bo, and his new wife Anastasia, came down and borrow the truck to go get their fresh-cut tree. We were at their house a couple of days later with family making ginger bread houses, and there was a fresh-cut noble fir filling the house with its mere presence – and aroma.

The smell of their tree brought back a flood of memories.

First, I remember when the boys were little we used to pack them up and travel from lot to lot to look at noble firs and pick just the right one for our Christmas. I remembered one Christmas when we found a tree lot with a huge stack of fresh trees, but none had been set up yet. It wasn't like hiking through snow-covered woods and sizing up trees to fell. It was more work.

The trees were not up on stands. They were still wrapped in string from their long ride from the woods of Oregon or Montana. We'd look at the base to see if it would fit in our tree stand and gauge if the top was straight and suitable for the angel ornament. Many of the trees met those two criteria, so I'd cut the string off and set it up for Becky and the boys to examine, set it down, move several more around, and set up another one.

After about an hour I felt like I’d moved every tree in a clear-cut. After setting up about 40 or 50 trees for the family to view, my pocket knife was getting dull, and my arms and back were aching. Even saplings get heavy when you wrestle around dozens of them, and, of course, we bought one of first ones we'd looked at. I fell asleep on the couch after tightening the stand down and setting it up in the living room. The rich aroma filled the house with the outdoors I so loved. For me, with that tree was up, it was finally Christmas.

I remember what a big part the tree played in our Christmas traditions when I was a child. My father was a dreamer and able to conjure away what some thought was reality. Mostly he dreamed our house was much bigger. Even in our den -- which I secretly believe my mother thought he built in a foolish hope that a higher ceiling and large room might hold his Christmas tree choices -- my father could always find a tree that was too large.

Some years the whole family would go on the tree search, but Dad would disappear to a back corner of one of the lots and barter with the owner while we were looking at nice, small, symmetrical trees with Mom. Dad would then appear, coming through the rows with a huge tree that wouldn't fit into the station wagon. When tied on the roof, it would either obscure the driver's vison or nearly drag in the street behind. Or both.

I was very young, but I still remember the season he outdid himself. Dad found a tree that had been meant for a hall, but the Christmas party had been cancelled. The man at the lot was stuck with a 30-foot tree. Dad got it for a song. When he came home that year, the door swung open and he started into the house with that marvelous tree in tow. He went all the way across the room and tree was still following him in the door. My mother gasped.

But with some whittling and sawing (lots of sawing) and plugging in branches here and there, the top half of that tree was one of the prettiest we'd ever had -- and there was also a big stack of firewood to scent our Christmas blaze. Somehow it wasn't the tree that was transformed, it was the house itself. Our den was made larger than life, as big as a manger, enveloping the tree. I knew then if that tree would fit in our house everything was possible.

Each year, with the smell of the fir in our home, I’d remember the big tree walking through the door, its boughs bouncing like a bird fluffing its feathers, and my father's jubilant face. I hadn’t thought of that story for a number of years until my oldest son revived the tradition of a fresh tree in his house this season.

My parents have been gone a long time, and Christmas lost a lot of its magic for me. As my boys got older and the distance from my own childhood years increased, it pained me that my boys never knew my father and mother. They didn’t get to see my mom sitting in a folding chair, reading in a high mountain meadow while we were camping. They didn’t get to learn how to catch stream trout from their grandfather. And they didn’t get to sit on laps during my parents’ favorite time of year and hear Christmas carols played on a saxophone. There was a huge empty spot in my heart that loomed large this time of year.

Until this year.

My son’s Christmas tree brought everything that is bright about this season home again with a simple noble fir. Christmas is about family, stretching both directions through time even if your place in that line changes. It is about faith and sharing. My adult boys will hear my childhood Christmas tree story about my father this year. They will understand in their own time about the importance of suspending disbelief and recognizing that even the biggest dreams are really never too big if you're willing to just open that door.


[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]

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