December 19, 2013

Oh, Christmas Tree – the 2013 Edition

Putting up the Sanders Family Christmas Tree is always a complex operation, and this year’s production is no different. 
First, there is the search for the tree.  Then, there is bringing the tree home.  After that, there is the storing of the tree until the proper date, after which comes placing the tree in the stand.  Finally, there is the decorating of the tree.  None of these are simple tasks where the Sanders Family Christmas Tree is concerned.
The tree comes into the house.
That's 'The Lemon Drop Kid'
playing in the background.

Double-click on any of these
photos for a slideshow.
I should interject a little background for the unwary reader.  Mine is a mixed marriage.  Betty is a born-and-bred New Yorker from the Finger Lakes, where horse-drawn sleighs drag magnificent, fresh-cut firs through crisp, fresh-fallen snow to homes on Christmas Eve.  I am a native Floridian and my circa-1957 vision of the pathetic, parched, brown-needled Scotch pines that slumped listlessly against fences in Kiwanis-Club-operated lots in my hometown is permanently seared in memory. 
This is a drawing on an
egg of our first house, 

a brownstone in Brooklyn
In the Finger Lakes, multiple generations of a family gather around a roaring fire to roast chestnuts before going out to skate on frozen ponds.  In Miami, we picked up a couple of #2 Christmas dinners at the drive-through window at Bubi’s on our way to the beach.
Betty has always been a true believer.  She only had to give me a taste of the Real Thing to bring me around.  I cut my first Christmas tree in 1974 on a tree farm north of Albany with Betty as my guide to distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ trees.  It was a revelation.  I was hooked.  I saw the light, and there no greater zealot in the Christmas Tree Universe than a convert. 
A decided mix of cultures: at
lower left, a Ukranian egg from
our days in Chicago; at center,
an Indian on an elephant; one
of Betty's parent's ornaments
from the 1940s.
This year, we began scouting Christmas trees before Thanksgiving and made an exploratory visit to our first lot soon thereafter.  For several years – at the height of my mania – we traveled fifty miles to southern Rhode Island to cut fourteen-foot behemoths at Big John Leyden’s Tree Farm (inexplicably, there are no cut-your-own tree farms in Boston – go figure).  Going to Big John’s involved borrowing a truck and spending upwards of three hours finding ‘the right’ tree.  And, while the cost of the tree was a very reasonable $35, the gas involved made the excursion less of a bargain.  And, Big John eventually ran out of fourteen-foot Fraser firs, plus Betty put her foot down that we would never again devote two solid days just to getting a tree to stand up straight.
There's something for
everyone on the tree
We found this year’s tree at Weston Nurseries, a nine-plus-foot Fraser fir that smelled like the Great North Woods.  It was baled and placed atop our car for the fifteen-mile drive home. That was on December 8.  We do not, however, put up our tree until exactly one week before Christmas, and I am unable to fathom why putting up trees – real or artificial – in late November has become both commonplace and acceptable.  To me, a tree has a two-week engagement where it occupies center stage in a house.  It should go up on December 18 while an appropriate Christmas movie or three plays in the background and come down while watching the Rose Parade on HGTV.
The density of ornaments
reflects travel and eclectic tastes.
Once home, we un-baled the tree and parked it in our woods to regain its proper form.  This involved cutting a fresh bottom, standing the tree up in a tub of water, and securing it at four points to nearby trees.  Tying ropes in sub-freezing weather is not fun but we accomplished the feat in a little under an hour.  There, the tree stood for eight days, which included one bout of snow and sleet. 
On Monday, though, there was a warning for a fresh three-to-six inches of the white stuff the following day and we thought it unwise to carry a snow-encrusted tree into the house.  So, we cleared a space in the garage and devoted two hours to anchoring the tree to the railing of one of our garage doors while tying the base of the tree to the other railing so the tree could not kick out and hit a car.  Elapsed time:  ninety minutes. 
Then, late Tuesday afternoon, after the tree had shed its accumulation of snow (and while heavy snow fell outside), we carried it into the house.  We must be getting better at placing trees in stands (it requires an extremely heavy-duty stand to accommodate a tree of our size and girth) because we got it standing perfectly straight on the first try.  We tightened the tree in its stand.  We also deploy a pair of guy wires to augment the stand because, in years past, cats had gotten inspired to scale the tree in search of whatever it is cats climb trees to find.
A koala from Australia, an angel,
an ornate ceramic egg and my
drawing of our Stamford home.
Once guy-wired, we inspected the tree one last time.  It was magnificent, with a circumference at its base of more than twenty-five feet.  It was perfect… except that it was facing the wrong way.  And so, with guy wires removed, I wiggled my way into the tree and picked it up in its stand, slowly rotating a hundred-pound tree (plus stand) one hundred and eighty degrees. Guy wires were re-attached.  Miraculously, the tree was still straight.  Elapsed time:  two hours.
Tuesday evening, we added nine hundred lights.  Wednesday, we started decorating.
It is decorating a tree that is the true joy of having one.  Opening each box of ornaments is a voyage of discovery through time and space.  There are the tiny vases we acquired in Greece and the prayer balls from Japan.  There are matched glass lamps from Harrod’s in London and terra cotta jugs from Sorrento.  There is a tiny Champagne bottle from old friends in Virginia and one of my baby shoes. 
Box after box is opened and memories are unleashed:  tiny koalas from Australia and a carved tiger in a Santa cap from the San Diego Zoo; crystal icicles we bought on sale after Christmas at B. Altman in the late 1970s and delicate ornaments from the 1940s that graced Betty’s tree when she was a girl.  Hand-painted Ukrainian eggs from our days in Chicago and a Russian one featuring a red fox framed against a snowy night from a street fair in Augusta, Georgia.
The finished tree.
Merry Christmas!
There are more than 600 ornaments in all (a computerized list keeps track of each one and its origin).  We add a few new ornaments each year; both ones we are given and ones we acquire.  Sadly, a few become too delicate to use and so are taken out, admired, and returned to storage.
This is our ritual.  Christmas means many things to different people.  For me, the tree is a symbol of both timeless and evolution; of change and of constancy.  I look at the decorated tree and I see a diorama of my life preserved in precious bundles each weighing a few ounces.

Christmas trees come but once a year, but the enchantment is eternal.