When I was 5, my mother dragged me into the woods 10 to 14 days before Christmas to cut a tree for the living room. She was more anxious than her son to put up a holiday evergreen, an ancient custom passed down from pagan cultures before Christ’s birth.
While deer hunting in November, she and my father would pick out a 6-foot balsam fir or white spruce. My father’s interest in the selection surprised me because he normally wasn’t into domesticity.
For four Decembers in a row, my mother and I would head down a woodland path with frosty noses and a D-shaped bucksaw to fetch the chosen tree – exciting stuff for a kid.
By the time I was 8, my mother sent me alone with the bucksaw, and by then, with my urging for the choice, we always cut a balsam fir for softer needles arranged in flat rows on the limbs. White spruce needles radiated out in a circle and felt too prickly.
My parents still had input in the choice of fir, though. We picked the tree in November, with all three of us seeing it at one time or another, often beginning pre-choice considerations a few years in advance.
One of us would find a suitable tree and explain, “I found a good one by that pyramid-shaped rock next to ‘The Bend Pool’ on Bull Brook.”
Our location descriptions went like that, a perfect example of real-life folklore, and all of us would check it out in subsequent days, weeks or year.
In my preteens, I moved the cutting date up to three weeks before Christmas – a kid beginning to get far too anxious for the holiday.
Temple author Robert Kimber wrote a superb book about rural Maine life, “Upcountry” (1991, Lyons & Burford).
In one chapter, Kimber explained that the Saturday before the holiday, he and a family member looked for a wild Christmas tree on his 100-plus-acre woodlot and furnished the reason for the last-minute date – finding a tree on his acreage was not a pressing problem.
One point has stuck with me: The Kimbers not only cut the tree on that Saturday, but they also chose it – brave hearts.
Like me, Kimber prefers a wild Christmas tree better than one grown and trimmed for that purpose. Unfortunately these days, if Jolie, my intrepid companion, and I want a do-it-yourself project, we cut our holiday symbol from a tree farm.
The last I knew, when a police officer sees someone with a Christmas tree in or on a vehicle, he may check for a sales or permission slip. While I was carrying a tree home years ago, a state cop did stop me but never asked about the tree. Instead, he issued a warning for a faulty tail light. It would have probably insulted me to check the tree – a mild accusation that I may have stolen a Christmas tree for a Christian holiday.
For my childhood family, legally cutting a Christmas tree off wild land that we knew well created three allures:
• Before the tree became big enough to cut, we may have watched it grow while imagining the trimmed evergreen some day standing in the house.
• When looking at the tree in our home, we would recall the forest scene that once surrounded the prize.
• In the following years, when walking by the empty spot where the tree once stood, at least I’d feel the sacrifice that a living organism had made for that brief holiday display.
If folks don’t see their Christmas tree growing, they know little of the allures mentioned above, making it more difficult to feel this affinity to Earth.
Modern people unattached to the outdoors may miss the point that something must die for us to live. Hunting, fishing, gardening or cutting Christmas trees fit into that philosophy.
As Crosby, Nash, Stills & Young beautifully crooned in my youth, “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” All of those above endeavors help us find that symbolic “garden.”
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: