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After Work: The Perfect Christmas Tree

...My mother and father rose to the occasion when it came to our Christmas tree. No supermarket trees for them. They even turned their noses up at the Lions Club selection. They weren’t even enticed by the batch of pines, firs and cedars offered up by the Future Farmers of America.

No, no tree would do except one cut from our own woods by my father wielding a freshly sharpened axe...

Muscle power, engineering know-how, skilled carpentry - all required in abundance for the selection and placement of the Christmas tree in Dona Gibbs's family home. No wonder sustaining beakers of hot chocolate were required while THE PROJECT was under way.

“That one has possibilities,” said my father, his breath puffing out in little clouds, as he sized up a six-foot cedar tree.

“Looks a little lopsided to me,” my mother frowned.

Me, I was bouncing up and down in my favorite footwear – red rubber boots, wishing that Christmas tree selecting would soon be over so we could get to the decorating part.

My mother and father rose to the occasion when it came to our Christmas tree. No supermarket trees for them. They even turned their noses up at the Lions Club selection. They weren’t even enticed by the batch of pines, firs and cedars offered up by the Future Farmers of America.

No, no tree would do except one cut from our own woods by my father wielding a freshly sharpened axe. And a hatchet. And a crosscut saw. He was an engineer and tools were a passion.

My mother carried her nifty steel tape, not trusting my father to “eyeball it.” We’d had to lop the top off too-tall trees many Christmases before, and my mother had a long memory for the mistakes of others, especially my father’s.

After an hour or two tramp around the cold, grey North Carolina woods, we’d finally all agree on “the perfect specimen.” My father would attack the evergreen with the various tools he’d lugged along.

“Don’t split the trunk. Don’t split the trunk,” my mother mumbled like a mantra.

Seemed to me that my father worked up a pretty good sweat cutting down the tree, but he was probably just wearing too many layers, remembering the boyhood Blue Northerns that whistled down the Oklahoma plains.

When finally the tree toppled, he’d yell,”Ti-m-m-ber!” in great triumph.

Then came the struggle. We had to carry the tree back to the house. Why we always managed to choose a tree growing on the fartherest reaches of our property is inexplicable. It was one of the few occasions father’s keen assessment of efficiency, which was usually in overdrive, and my mother’s grim practicality crumbled.

Maybe it was Christmas spirit, but I doubt it.

My family was competitive, all three of us. No, make that all four of us, if you count in a grumpy cocker spaniel.

We wanted, in my father’s words, “The best damn Christmas tree,” we could ferret out.

Now you’d think that once we’d found the tree, hacked it down, lugged it back and wrestled it into the house, we'd pop it in a stand and gaily decorate it while sipping hot chocolate.

Maybe that happened in some households but not in ours.

My father then custom built a stand. That’s right. Custom built, as in measuring, re-measuring and sawing. Then drilling—that’s right—drilling. No nails in his stands. And screwing and bolting his triumph of Christmas tree stand engineering. The thing could have lasted for generations.

By this time, the child on-looker was bored. When asked to find a piece of scratch paper and a 4HB pencil, I knew that a math lesson was on its way.

It seemed to me that time crawled, and we were probably all the way up to the eighth day of Christmas with eight lords a-leapin. Clearly, at the rate the Christmas tree project was progressing, Santa would be scratching his head wondering where to put the presents.

Finally the stand was completed.

Now we could decorate, right? Wrong.

Then came the great “Where-shall-we-put-the-tree debate.”

Some families always put the tree in the living room in the right hand corner. Others, in the front window. Not ours. Every year, my mother and father chose a different spot. It all had to do with the symmetry or lack thereof of the tree. Some years it was placed in a corner. Other years, it was centered in the room. It seemed the individual trees spoke to them and informed them of the right placement.

Once the tree was placed my mother would then start her favorite contribution, which she called, “improving on nature”. She would judiciously prune the tree. With the lopped off branches she filled in bare spots. That is, she drilled holes in the trunk and inserted extra branches, wiring them to the natural ones.

An hour or two later, they’d be ready to decorate.

By this time the cocker spaniel had curled up in front of the fire, growling away in his cantankerous doggy dreams.

Me, I had sneaked away to my room, making a tent of the covers and hiding out with a book.

On into the night I could hear my parents in the living room.

“I think we should put the bubble lights on first.”

“Will that extension cord reach?”

“I feel much better if we’d attach the tree to the wall with a couple of guy wires.”

On and on until I fell asleep.

Christmas trees, snowflakes and yes, family traditions. Each one is different.


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