The previous night’s snow had coated the forest with foot-deep powder, silencing the footsteps of the three hunters – my brother and I and our father, in the annual quest for a Christmas tree. It was like being in a sound-proofed studio – that weird, echoless sensation of walking alone in an enchanted world.
“Look at this one, Daddy,” my brother exclaimed.
“Shake the snow off it and let’s see,” the elder replied.
I was about 10, my brother two years younger. We were too young to remember from one tree to the next how cold would be the effect of reaching through the branches to grab the trunk and shake it, getting gobs of the new-fallen white stuff down our necks.
Dad stood back and watched, then walked around the spruce before rendering judgment.
“Too tall,” he would say of one selection. Or “look at this blank space” as he pointed out where limbs had not filled in on another, usually because the tree was part of a larger stand and the “blank spot” was where it had grown against its siblings.
In those early years, the “boys room” was unfinished. I could look from the foot of my bed, through the studs and downstairs to where the tree stood in the corner of the living room, waiting for Santa to decorate it. Santa, of course, was waiting for us kids to go to sleep.
A few hours later, we were awakened by the Lord of the House outside our window, shouting at some unseen person to “Wait! Come back here.”
Dad’s exclamations were punctuated by a fading “Ho Ho Ho! I can’t stop to visit” and sleigh bells ringing in the night air.
When we kids – there were three of us then, including a little sister about five years younger than I – got downstairs, and Dad came inside, clomping snow from his boots, there stood the tree – our gloriously decorated tree. Many of the decorations were our own collection. My favorite piece, still, is a red and white star like the one Darren McGavin installs atop his family tree in the 1983 movie, “A Christmas Story.”
As I got older, though, I began to wonder a bit about why we didn’t dress the tree instead of leaving it for the guy who ate the cookies and drank the milk after we went to bed. It was a question Santa did not answer when I spoke with him via radio while flying “ice patrols” over the North Pole in a Navy Orion aircraft.
Eventually, I was able to take my own kids Christmas Tree hunting, and accompany their mother in her quest for a “Charlie Brown tree” – the skimpiest, scraggliest specimen she could find – that she would decorate with a couple of ornamental balls and set on a small table in the living room.
I don’t remember many other details about Christmases of my youth. I know there were the mandatory articles of clothing. I think one year I received a baseball glove, but that may have been for my birthday, in October.
But I remember all of them featured family around the dinner table, a huge turkey for the centerpiece and mother-made mincemeat pie for desert. (I can almost taste it, even now. I could easily have foregone the rest of the meal for a chunk of Mom’s mincemeat pie.)
And I remember most clearly being surrounded by love. I can look back in disagreement with some of my parents methods, but I could never complain for lack of love.
That I wish to all my readers, on this most auspicious of holidays.