Back when we were youngsters my sisters and I had a set of benchmarks we used to count down the days leading up to Christmas. The first one was the start of school just after Labor Day. After that we dutifully watched as the calendar worked its way up to Halloween. We knew then there were only a few short weeks until Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving rolled around, Santa made his appearance at the big department stores and folks began putting up their outside holiday lights around town.
We duly noted each of these mileposts and our excitement grew as we crossed each date off the drug store calendar on the back of the pantry door. Finally we reached what to us was the most important benchmark of all -- the first Saturday morning after school dismissed for the Christmas holidays. This was the day every year when we went with daddy on our annual search for that perfect Christmas tree.
Once the morning chores were finished we’d hook the utility wagon to the old Farmall tractor and put in the ax and saw and maybe an icebox with some cold drinks, then off we’d go to the patch of pines that grew at the very back of our back pasture, where we spent the better part of a half day selecting “the tree”.
There weren’t a lot of choices in what brand of tree we’d get, it was either loblolly pine or loblolly pine, since that was all that grew around our place.
A loblolly pine doesn’t have the best shape for a Christmas tree, usually being shaped more like an oak or elm than what we picture as a Christmas tree shape, but with a lot of searching and visualizing, we would find a tree two or three years old with a real good Christmas tree shape up in the top…that’s what took us so long to pick out the perfect tree.
We’d ferret out one that looked great until we got it down and then as we examined it closely, we’d discover it had a flat side or maybe a bare spot or two, so off we’d go again searching for another. Usually after cutting 4 or 5 trees, we’d find one that was suitable, but we’d always take a couple of the others we’d cut earlier, just in case we had to do some filling in or other cosmetic repairs.
When we got back to the house, mama would inspect our choice and make suggestions whether we needed to drill a hole and insert a branch in the trunk to fill a bare spot, or perhaps just turn the bare spot to the wall where nobody would notice. Finally we’d set the tree in a bucket of wet sand and put it in its place in the house and almost immediately the house filled with the fresh pine scent that we associated with Christmas.
Next, we’d test all the lights, big and small, matched and mismatched, and string them throughout the branches. Next came all the decorations…antique glass balls, handmade ornaments, handicraft pieces made in school and scouts, and other bits and pieces representing Christmases past, until finally we placed the radiating star with one broken ray (a long ago casualty) atop the tree. This was followed with draping tinsel and aluminum and cellophane strips called icicles from all the branches. For the final touch mama would whip up a concoction made from Lux Flakes beaten together with water which she had learned from the home demonstration club ladies. It was supposed to look like snow when she spread it on the branches of the tree; but always looked like white glop to me.
Finally, we’d turn off all the lights in the room and plug in the tree lights and TA- DA...The Perfect Christmas Tree.
No matter that it had a few bald spots, no matter that maybe there was an extra branch or two inserted and glued into holes drilled into the trunk, no matter that it was so top-heavy it had to be tied to nails in the wall so that it would stand, no matter that it was crowned with a broken star and no matter it was coated with an imitation snow concoction that succeeded only in making the house smell like a laundry room rather than the evergreen scents of Christmas, no matter any of a half-hundred other flaws our tree may have had, it was the Perfect Christmas Tree.
In retrospect, what made those trees perfect was not their appearance, what made them perfect was the same thing that makes every Christmas tree perfect... all the love and family traditions that are infused into each one of them.