Stealing Christmas Trees

Deck the halls with boughs of holly! And don’t forget the re-runs! Hope you enjoy this one of Christmas in a simpler time. Hope you’re having a magical season!

This is about the time of year that, for many years, my sister and I would take off for our long, once a year walk through the piney woods of the neighboring farm where we grew up in north Florida. Since I was six years younger and “the puny one”, my job would be to “lookout” for people–more specifically interfering grownups–while my sister scouted around looking for the perfectly shaped eastern red cedar to grace our living room for Christmas.

It wasn’t often that she included me in her adventures–that privilege was usually reserved for my brothers, nearer her age and older–so for several years it was one of the rare times I felt connected as a sibling. Most of the time, she had little use for a snot-nosed little sister who had come along and snatched away her notoriety as the only girl in the family. Naturally it was a highlight of my year, and even though there was a sense of urgency that kept my stomach in knots during those quick and yearly excursions, I didn’t call it stealing. I guess that’s exactly what it was.

Prior to these years, neither set of grandparents nor my family ever had Christmas trees as far as I can remember. And it wasn’t until my sister was old enough to take care of the details herself that we enjoyed one in our house. Even though my father was tight fisted with his money, if anyone could make him relent, it was me and she knew it.

So she would whisper to me what to beg him to buy the next time we were in our Uncle’s general store in Providence. That’s how we came to own one strand of exactly seven lights, and one box each of silver icicles and angel hair that we re-boxed and re-used every year. Our other decorations we made ourselves–from yarn-wrapped dried hickory pods or pinecones–and colored glass balls salvaged from used Christmas corsage available in McCrory’s dime store for around 50 cents.

Our neighbor planted white slash pines. They take about 30 years to reach saw-timber size, but trees should ideally be thinned out at an earlier stage and sold for use as pulpwood. On a good site, a well-stocked stand of slash pine can also produce about two cords of wood per acre per year. It was a good investment if you had a lot of land or didn’t like to do a lot of work, so there were acres of it growing in the two to three miles distance along a country road between our home and his.

There were also several big NO TRESPASSING signs posted along the way, but for some reason this was where all the best red cedar trees grew wild, scattered in an around the growing pines.

On the appointed day my big sister would take my hand in one hand and a handsaw held close to her front thigh in the other, and we’d sett off together on foot. To casual passers-by, we were just two sisters out for a walk on a Saturday afternoon. After we’d walked a distance where the trees began to grow thicker, we’d climb over a barbed wire fence, and disappear among the trees and begin to breathe a bit easier in our cover of foliage.

“There,” I’d say when I spotted my first cedar tree. Then, seeing another possibility, “No, there!” But my sister had her own idea of what constituted the perfect tree. When she found it, even if it was five- or six-feet tall or more–as it usually was–she would select the top 24 inches or so to saw off, leaving behind the carcass of a headless tree. She knew we couldn’t have managed getting a larger one back home. Even if we could have, we neither had lights, or icicles, nor angel hair enough to decorate it. She always had a penchant for insisting the smaller the tree, the prettier and more magical it looked.

Passing cars or trucks were usually few, and always far between along that country road, so we’d stand the tree upright against the barbed wire fence if we saw any coming into our view. We’d wave at whoever was driving by, and continue down the road after they were gone.

Once we were safely back home, we’d “root” the tree in wet sand in a small tub we used for washing feet. Then we’d set it on a small table in the middle of the living room window. Then we’d go to the barn and dig out the small but growing collection of Christmas decorations we hoarded from year to year to see what the rats had left intact. Being the oldest, of course my sister took control of the decorating. She put the lights on first, then she’d point to where I could hang each of the ornaments, and together we’d carefully drape the silver icicles evenly over the tree–until the very ends that were too short to drape. I’d fling those on and let them fall where they may. Decorations were far too sparse to leave any off.  When everything else was done to perfection, my sister would pull the angel hair from its box, and stretch it very carefully so that it enshrouded the entire tree.

When she finished, we’d plug the lights into the wall socket, then wait for darkness to fall so we could go outside and see how it looked to anyone driving by. From outside, the lights were enveloped with tiny halos–very like those around the virgin Mary’s and Christ child’s head in nativity scenes. Every year for what seemed like my whole childhood, though on reflection I know it couldn’t have been so, she and I created this magic again and again.

Naturally, then, my sister is on my mind every year around this time, especially since she died of breast cancer in March of 1995. She was only 59 years old. For many years since then, I’ve tried to scheduled my yearly mammogram during the month of December. I like to think it’s what she would want me to do now that I have a tall plastic tree to decorate each year now that it’s practically impossible to steal trees anymore. And while it’s beautiful with the fancier decorations I’ve collected between the years passed and now, a part of me has to admit it that plastic Christmas tree doesn’t hold nearly as much magic as those tiny little trees of long ago.