Between the Lines: Choosing a tree, and a life

It’s way too early to get a Christmas tree, I said.
But V. and S. had other ideas.
I grew up in a family that reserved the annual finding and cutting of the tree until the day of Christmas Eve. To their way of thinking, the day after Thanksgiving isn’t too early.
The first weekend of December, in my childhood experience, was for paging through the Sears catalog and figuring out if you were going to ask Santa for a new bike or a Fanner Fifty cap gun.
When Christmas Eve and the annual visit from the Avnet family finally arrived, we would ski out to a friend’s farm with saws in hand. Among our band of five kids and the dads, a take-no-prisoners snowball fight inevitably ensued. That was followed by heated but friendly arguments about the proper choice of Christmas tree.
Once the decision was finally made, we kids took turns cutting the trunk of the chosen arboreal victim. We then lassoed the tree with rope and skied it back to the car.
As dusk descended on our little town we dragged the tree — which was invariably bigger than last year’s — through the front door of our big old brick house.
“It’s too big!” my mother would say. “Take it back!”
We happily ignored her. In a hundred-year-old house with 12-foot ceilings, we had plenty of room to work with. We used every inch of it, planting the freshly cut pine in the family room and stabilizing it with guy wires.
But those old traditions — and those of the intervening years of my adult life — are now the stuff of years gone by.
Amid the big adjustments of midlife, I’ve celebrated the past couple of holidays in a new setting with V. and her 13-year-old daughter, S.
And while we have happily blended most of our respective holiday traditions, it turns out that they have far different ideas than I do about when to get the tree.
The early birds usually come out on top in that kind of discussion. So it was that on this past Sunday we went tree hunting, in a woods owned by every American.
The American taxpayer never lacks for things to complain about: Bridges to nowhere. Bombers built to fight last century’s wars. A tax structure that, as Warren Buffett is fond of pointing out, means rich people pay fewer taxes than their secretaries.
But there’s an upside, too, if you live near a portion of the national forest.
Among the underestimated benefits of being an American is the not-inconsiderable pleasure of being able to go up into the national forest and cut your own Christmas tree. Equipped with a saw and an inexpensive permit from the local Forest Service office, anybody can avail themselves of one of the tracts suggested by the ranger.
While we are new at marking the holiday traditions as a threesome, V. and S. and I seem to have a natural holiday affinity. I’ve come to enjoy getting the tree early in December. And they pretend to like my favorite old Christmas albums by Frank Sinatra and the Kingston Trio.
This year’s tree outing began when V. and I picked up S. at a friend’s house in New Haven on Sunday morning, fresh from S.’s sleepover after the North Branch School contra dance and Mac & Cheese Extravaganza.
On the drive up Bristol Notch Road it began snowing, as if on cue.
“Let’s get some Christmas music on the radio,” V. said.
I responded with skepticism that there would be any a full three weeks out from Christmas.
The local station, however — a spot on the dial that I identify as the sound of the Laundromat — was playing one Christmas song after another. But not the ones I was used to hearing.
Turns out that it’s not only Frank Sinatra and the Kingston Trio who have Christmas albums.
Bruce Springsteen has a rockin’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and Mariah Carey and all of the contemporary female warblers have made their own bids for holiday CD sales.
I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise in an era when even Bob Dylan has a Christmas album.
The three of us chose our tree this year from the same Ripton expanse, off of Route 125, where we had found our first tree together last year. There, balsams and white pines have filled in an area that, by the looks of it, was clear-cut some years ago. Prickers seem to be the predominant plant species in this tract, but there are still a few worthy pines to be had.
As we searched for this year’s tree, I recalled last year’s search in the same area. We had gone slowly, unsure of how to make such a weighty decision together.
But since then, we’ve had a year’s practice of making decisions together — from carpool pickups to weekend plans, movie preferences to vacation spots. So it was easy this time around to pick out a tree we all liked.
I watched the tree fall with some sadness, a quick victim of our cross-cut saw. But then I noticed several other, smaller balsams nearby. They will flourish now that our little giant has been relocated to V. and S.’s living room.
“Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,” goes the old carol. “Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more.”
We all have many faithful friends who can’t be near to us at this time of year. They remain far away on the holidays.
But if we are fortunate in these uncertain times, we make new friends, with whom we can carry on the old traditions.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at Email him at [email protected].

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