LINCOLN — Heading up the road from Bristol along the New Haven River, just west of the mountain village of Lincoln, stands a small Christmas tree in the woods decorated with lights and a star.
The mysterious tree — situated in a thick patch of forest, across the river from homes and utility lines — shines anomalously against tall stands of trees in the dark, winter night.
For the past 15 years, Lincoln resident Bill Finger has orchestrated this incandescent spectacle on the far side of the river; a stone’s skip from his home. In that time, the sight of this tree has come to signify, for many Lincoln townspeople, the start of the holiday season.
“The thing about the tree, for me, is that … it’s the heralding of Christmas,” said Lincoln resident Pam Dunne. “Coming home in the dark, it’s the first thing that I see as I round the bend and head into Lincoln. It always lets me know that I’m home.”
But this year the magic was almost extinguished.
When rains from Tropical Storm Irene came crashing down on Lincoln in late August, the New Haven River rose rapidly — swelling around Finger’s barn and the forested area across the river. As the floodwaters washed away Finger’s garden and threatened his home, the last thing on his mind was the little Christmas tree on the other side of the torrent.
Days after the river receded, Finger caught his first glimpse of the tree.
“It got flattened,” he said, noting the debris left by the floodwaters. “But if that’s all that we lost compared to what others lost, especially on the other side of the mountain, I’m not going to complain. I’m very fortunate not to have had worse happen.”
When Dunne saw Finger in autumn, she asked him about the tree. Finger told her the news and said that he wasn’t sure he’d find another tree.
“I was sad because I thought that the tree might not be there this year,” Dunne said. “I would have missed it a lot.”
Then, one day in November, Finger looked across the river and saw the mangled tree standing upright with its LED star fastened to the top. He trudged across the river — the waters are never too deep this time of year — and checked the star.
“It was packed full of sand and the label on it says for indoor use only,” he chuckled.
He plugged it in, and the star turned on. He’s still not sure how the tree was put upright.
“I didn’t do it, so I don’t know how it got back up,” he said. “When I saw that, I thought maybe I can make it better. But it was so wrapped up with plastic bags and trash it wasn’t worth it.”
So he decided to get a new one.
The first tree Finger decorated in 1996 was a little conifer, growing naturally in the forest. When a storm swept that tree away, he began using a locally grown Christmas tree every year. Several years ago, he resolved to use a synthetic tree so that he didn’t have to carry a new tree across the river every year. That tree was the one Irene washed out. The newest and smallest addition to the legacy of Lincoln Christmas trees went up at the beginning of the advent season on Dec. 1, just like its predecessors.
“Oh yeah, it’s real,” said Finger about the new tree, with a playful smile spread across his face.
For Finger — who often can be found at the Middlebury town offices, where he's the town manager — Christmas is a wondrous time, surrounded by tales of magic and mystery. The tree, he said, plays into this mystique.
“It’s something kind of fun. People are still wondering how the electricity gets over there,” he said, motioning to a long extension chord, traversing the river by treetop.
“A lot of people really like it because it’s mysterious, (standing) across the river in a place where you don’t expect to see a lit tree.”
When Dunne rounded that kink in the river earlier this month, she was thrilled to see a new tree shining.
“I loved it. I was so excited,” she said. “When I rounded the bend and saw that it was there, I thought, ‘Way to go, Bill. Thank you so much.’ Seeing it lit again this year was like getting a gift.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.