Essay: Looking back down a long line of Christmas trees

Essay: Looking back down a long line of Christmas trees

My advancing age is being measured out in store-bought Christmas trees. We bought a Christmas tree from Tea Lane Nurseries again this year. Salty sold us a beautiful Frazier fir, just the right size and shape for the corner of our living room, and I don’t begrudge the 60 bucks it cost, but I do feel that in the last five or six years I have lost a step in the Christmas department.

I used to boast that I never pay money for a Christmas tree, and that was true, though it was also true that I stole many of them.

We started married life in Hawaii, and we did buy a small tree that first Christmas. It had probably come by freighter from the West Coast. I don’t remember what it cost, but about 25 percent of its needles fell off on the way home, and the rest followed fast. The next year we put up a three-foot branch of black coral I’d found while scuba diving. Its coal-black twigs looked very chic decorated with little shiny Christmas balls. Black coral, usually found only at great depth and valuable for jewelry, gave our low-income household a certain up-scale cachet, even though my find was not commercial-grade.

When we first moved back to Massachusetts, we celebrated Christmas with my parents, and they bought the trees, but I had to wrestle again with the wing nuts on their flimsy tree-stand — the worst system anybody ever thought of, not just when the tree was first set up, but every time if fell over and had to be remounted with all the decorations in place. Ever since, we’ve planted our trees sturdily in a bucket of rocks.

When we moved to Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, we began having our own tree. For six years I cut Christmas trees on some out-of-the-way property over in Winchendon that belonged to a Cushing trustee. Our school housing was a girls’ dorm, a big old Victorian with a huge, high-ceilinged living room, and we lugged in 12-foot balsam firs. I didn’t know the trustee, an eccentric old man who from time to time used to eat supper by himself in a corner of the dining hall kitchen. Henry Hunt, a math teacher, claimed that this trustee had once given him permission to cut a tree, which I could share if I’d get him one too. The second year Henry retired, but I kept the tradition, albeit on sketchy secondhand permission. When the trustee died, I learned that his only heir was a mentally disabled brother in a Connecticut nursing home. I figured the brother wouldn’t mind, and I continued to cut trees. A cynical person could argue that I stole all six trees, but there was something wonderful about wrestling those giants out of the woods, at least once in deep snow. Imagine what they would have cost, assuming you could find a lot that sold trees that large.

The same year that we left Cushing and Henry’s trees, we built the first little piece of our house at Glimmerglass and started spending Christmas vacations on the Vineyard. Our shack was tiny, and the slender shape of a cedar suited our limited space perfectly. We loved the smell, and the irregular branches had nooks and crannies excellent for displaying our growing collection of family ornaments.

For the next 30 or so Christmases, our tree was a Vineyard cedar, sometimes from our own land but more often, I’m abashed to admit, surreptitiously culled from our neighbors’ deep woods — never from an open field or near a house or where anyone would be likely to miss it, but purloined nonetheless.

However, by the time we moved here year-round, suitable trees within walking distance of our house were becoming very scarce. One could cut down a 30-foot tree and bring home the top six feet, but that was wasteful and felt like vandalism. After a few more years, the supply was exhausted, and so was I. We reluctantly decided to bolster the local economy, buying trees in Vineyard Haven from Tea Lane’s stand on State Road, John Mancuso’s on Main Street, or fund-raisers at Hinckley’s on Beach Road.

Buying a tree makes me feel like a wimp. There was something early-American, something independent, self-reliant, even a little atavistic about the whole scene. It had a kind of dignity. I felt like a homesteader on the frontier going out into the forest to cut my family’s Christmas tree. It wasn’t the frontier, and most of the forest belonged to someone else, but it was my saw, my sweat, and my resourcefulness that got home the tree. Even snitching a tree had its own guilty, suburban-guerilla appeal.

At least I haven’t completely capitulated and bought a plastic tree. I have a little dignity left.