It’s Christmas Eve and I’m sitting here enjoying my second eggnog and bourbon (hold the eggnog, thank you) and gazing at our tree.
It’s a perfectly lovely little fir, but I can’t help thinking back to the trees of my childhood, which came not from a tidy, well-lit roadside stand but from the deep, dark woods off the Kancamagus highway.
The practice of harvesting one’s tree from the White Mountain National Forest is enjoying a resurgence, if news reports are to be believed. For a mere $5, you can cut your own Christmas memory. Of course, these news stories are full of sunny, smiling families gamboling through pure white snow. The cherubic, ruddy-cheeked children find the perfect tree within minutes. The patient, bemused dad cuts it down easily, ties it securely to the roof of their giant SUV and everyone repairs hearthside for hot cocoa with marshmallows shaped like butterflies and unicorns.
Lies, lies, lies.
My family ‘harvested’ its Christmas trees from the White Mountain woods for years (it was only $2 back in the day). Here’s how it invariably went down:
Two weeks before Christmas, my mom would decide it was time to put up the tree. She would stuff my two younger brothers and me into layer after layer of clothes before cramming us into snowsuits and heavy boots. We would add hats and mittens. ensuring our core temperatures were in the triple digits before we left the house. After a 15-minute fight about who got to sit in the front seat, we would climb angrily into our pea green station wagon (my dad would have the heat on full blast) for the ride to the Kanc.
We would drive along with no fixed destination until we found a patch of woods that looked promising. Then we’d pile out of the station wagon, our sweat immediately freezing in the northern New England cold, and slip and slide down the embankment toward the trees. At this point one of my brothers would lose a hat, or a mitten, or both. Someone would step in a stream, filling their boots with water.
Still, dear reader, you would think it would be an easy thing to find a Christmas tree in a forest filled with millions upon millions of trees. I’m here to tell you it’s not.
My 12-year-old self was happy with any old tree; the presents were all that mattered. Jon, 10, cared even less. He was just happy to play with a hatchet in the woods. Nine-year-old Matt, however, wanted the dream tree. Unfortunately, perfectly proportioned trees exist only on tree farms and in gas station lots. Wild trees in New Hampshire are shaped by the wind and show and look like real trees.
This meant we would spend what seemed like hours in the woods, trudging from tree to tree, hoping to find one that lived up to Matt’s standards. Every once in a while we would look up and realize Jon had wandered off with the hatchet and was nowhere to be found (the reckless hiker law was made for people like him). We’d track him down after a short search only to realize we left the saw back where we started. Someone would lose another mitten. My dad would say a very un-Christmaslike word.
Eventually, it would begin to get dark and we would force Matt to pick a tree, which set off a round of 9-year-old hysterics. My dad would then get down on his knees and use the rusty saw and dull hatchet to fell whatever sad-looking pine we settled on. Soon we’d realize Jon had taken off again, which would spark another search and more naughty words from Dad. Then someone would have to pee, which meant peeling off the 50 or so layers of now-sweaty clothing. Once one boy peed, the other two had to follow suit.
Finally, we’d be standing in front of our felled tree, surrounded by yellow snow under a darkening sky. Success.
Dragging the tree back to the car meant losing branches and more wails of despair from Matt. The ride home seemed longer because we didn’t tie the tree to the top of the station wagon. We stuffed in in back, which meant the back windows had to be open. We had to hold onto the tree so it wouldn’t fall out, meaning our snowsuits got covered in pitch, and dog hair and other detritus from a family wagon stuck to the pitch. By the time we got home, we looked like sweaty, snotty-nosed, homeless Chewbaccas. My mom would be waiting with cups of restorative hot chocolate.
We would bring the tree into the house, plop it in the stand and immediately realize Matt was right: The tree was butt-ugly. Sometimes it had branches on one side but not the other. Sometimes it looked spindly and anemic. Sometimes, laden with ornaments we made in elementary school art classes, it just fell over on its own, like it was giving up.
These days I don’t even have to bundle up for a tree; they’re sold in a lot about 50 yards from my house. Luke, Deb and I can walk out the door, find a tree and bring it home during a Patriots halftime. I don’t even have to pee outside.
It’s just not the same. Jon passed away almost 15 years ago. Now, every year when my family gets together, we tell each other stories of the Christmas tree searches on the Kanc and we laugh our butts off. It’s one way of cementing Jon’s unique character in our minds.
It strikes me now, as I enter the halfway point of my third nog-less eggnog and bourbon, that those ugly trees served their purpose. After all, a family that pees in the woods together stays together.
Merry Christmas to all, and a hat tip to LiveFreeandHike, whose Twitter post sparked these memories.