When I was a kid, Christmas was a time of many improbable events, an Age of Belief marked not only by an unshakable faith in Santa Claus but in other strange and magical phenomena as well. The season of miracles began shortly after Thanksgiving, when there appeared on our doorstep a Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog. Until my sixth or seventh year I remained convinced it had been put there by elves.
After several days of more or less nonstop perusal of the toy section, my selection was made, whereupon my mother, acting as Santa’s secretary, would write down my order. Not on the Montgomery Ward order form, but on a plain sheet of paper, which was then tossed into the firebox of the coal furnace that loomed like a Bessemer converter in our basement. The elves, she explained, would read my message in the smoke and forward it directly to Santa Claus at the North Pole, thus bypassing Montgomery Ward middlemen and saving a three cent postage stamp by the way.
I then faced a long wait—eons compared with today’s all-too-brief holiday countdown—with little to relieve the tedium save the third magical event of the season: the building of the Christmas tree.
Persons not of my immediate family tend to raise eyebrows whenever I speak of building Christmas trees, as if the custom is peculiar. I suppose it’s because so many folks nowadays have come of age in the era of ready-made plastic Ponderosas, complete with artificial boughs and simulated scent. Or perhaps they hark back to an earlier era when everyone lived on a farm in the country, within easy sledding distance of a perfectly conical evergreen. At our house, things were different. As far back as I can remember, my father had always built our Christmas trees by hand.
Exactly how the custom originated I can’t say, but I suspect it began during the Great Depression when Dad was struggling to make ends meet as a carpenter. Like others of his generation, he’d learned the hard way the value of a dollar. Woodworking skills, combined with frugal Scottish genes, had steered him naturally in the direction of tree construction.
Mind you, he never managed to make a tree from scratch, although several times he came darn close. For raw materials, he’d shop the neighborhood tree farm, a make-believe forest of freshly cut pines set up in a parking lot downtown. No sooner did the salesman quote him a price than visions of hard times began to dance in Dad’s head. The piped-in Christmas carols faded out, replaced in his mind’s ear by the skirl of ancestral bagpipes. Dad would proceed to the discount section, cannily inspecting the rows of irregulars, kicking a trunk here, inspecting a price tag there, until at last he found one that answered to the tune of reasonable.
Usually it was a pretty sad-looking specimen, shopworn and lop-limbed—hardly fit for kindling. Picture if you will a flagpole with a five-o’clock shadow, or a fence post sprouting arms.
Whenever he would bring such a prize home, he was inevitably greeted by a concert of moans and groans from wife and kids. Ignoring our complaints, Dad would drag the thing to his basement workshop, where he’d set to work with hammer and saw.
Upstairs, Mom and kids unpacked ornaments and strung garlands of popcorn and cranberries. Downstairs, Dad pruned and splinted damaged limbs, drilled holes and rearranged boughs in order to conceal bald spots. When at last the hammering and sawing and drilling ceased, there was an expectant hush as we hearkened to footsteps ascending the cellar stairs. Then, Dad would emerge triumphant, cradled in his arms a perfectly symmetrical, beautiful Christmas tree.
Come Christmas morning, the tree would shelter Santa’s gifts, direct from Montgomery Ward’s via the North Pole. I remember that my Christmas wishes always came true—thanks in no small part to the money my father saved by making his own trees and what Mom saved by burning letters to Santa instead of mailing them. Most of all, I remember those trees, magnificent specimens of the sort that once inspired Joyce Kilmer to write, “Poems are made by fools like me/but only God can make a tree.” My father was no fool, and I don’t recall that he ever wrote a poem. But he sure did make wonderful trees.