Every year our family embarks upon an old-fashioned quest for the perfect Christmas tree. We gear up and trudge through the woods, often hiking for miles in deep snow before we find a healthy spruce tree to adorn our living room throughout the holiday season.
Anyone who has seen Southcentral Alaska’s forests understands that this tradition makes for great memories, but hideous trees.
Actually, the memories aren’t always that great either. Someone always ends up in tears, justified or not. One year it was Sam, whose feet got tangled in a dog team’s harness and found himself dragged down the trail for several feet before the musher could get her huskies to stop. Most years it’s Maggie, whose legs become either tired or frozen, and doesn’t understand why we can’t carry her and a tree out of the forest. (Granted, she was a 2-year-old when we started this tradition.) Other years it’s me, terrified of getting in a car accident. Our annual tree day typically coincides with the worst road conditions of winter, which makes for fun games like “Count the Rollovers” as we cruise to our destination.
In case you’re wondering, this is all completely legal. The Mat-Su Valley has designated tree cutting areas where we share a few acres with a dozen other families on a similar journey. This year we headed south instead, to the Kenai Peninsula, where each household is allowed to take one tree from the Chugach National Forest as long as you are 150 yards from the road and water. On the one hand, it was nice to be alone in the woods, where we didn’t have to watch other families skipping down the trail with the last decent spruce tree in the forest. (Tree envy. But at least those families were helping to break trail.) This year we were on our own, wading through waist deep snow that, judging from the tracks, had barely been touched by anything but moose and vole.
After over an hour of post-holing through the snow, the kids were getting exhausted. Luckily, they were content to take a break while we forged ahead on our own. No tears this year! (Whining, yes… tears, no.)
Finding a decent tree is a challenge around here. Few trees grow out on their own, independently or uniformly. Every tree we got excited about turned out to be a duo, like Siamese twins with enormous bald spots on the adjoining sides. Most of the singlets were enormously tall and too narrow. Our perseverance paid off, however, and we finally found a legitimate candidate. Clark shook off as much ice as possible and the big guy seemed to pass inspection.
It’s always a hard thing for me, to kill a tree. I wonder if this wild spruce would have preferred to live out a long, difficult life in the forest, its arms laden with snow, its feet rooted in permafrost, and its body pummeled by winds. I’d like to think being selected as a Christmas tree is such an honor that it happily makes the sacrifice. We give it a few iconic weeks before sending it to the wood lot to be turned into wood chips for local trails. Poor thing.
But daylight was waning, so there wasn’t much time to get philosophical. Sam and Clark crawled underneath with the handsaw, and worked together to fell our chosen tree.
Maggie was pretty busy eating snow, but she did manage to mumble “TIMBER!” as the tree toppled to the ground.
Turns out that was the easy part. This was the biggest tree we had ever harvested, and dragging it through waist deep snow to the truck was not an easy feat. We hoisted it up and walked about 20 steps, of which I fell down about 50 times, before Clark got disgusted with my lack of assistance and declared I would be better off breaking trail. I got a ways ahead of him, and was genuinely concerned when I’d look back and see him taking uncharacteristically frequent breaks. He was always bent at the waist, and I worried that our 100 lb. tree was going to induce cardiac arrest. I love this family tradition, but must admit I started to fantasize about heading to Bell’s Nursery next year instead. Beautiful, tame trees with minimal effort… it’s tempting.
Eventually we did make it home safely, and after letting the tree thaw in the garage for a few hours we heaved it up to the living room. (It was notably lighter when the ice chunks melted.) I wanted to be festive and enthusiastic, but in all honesty I was crestfallen. Our perfect tree was actually pretty pathetic, with gaping holes no matter which way we rotated the poor thing. The kids could do flips through the gaps in this pitiful spruce – how did we not see this in the forest? Either the piles of snow had disguised the holes or it was severely damaged on the transport. Probably a combination of both.
But then I looked at the pile of spruce boughs lying on the living room floor, which had been trimmed from the bottom of the tree. Plugs! I remembered my friend Darlene telling stories about her husband fixing up their little Charlie Brown trees, and we figured it was worth a try. Clark snagged his drill from the garage, and we spent the next hour drilling holes in the trunk and sticking spare spruce boughs into the holes. We completely reconstructed the tree, standing back and eyeballing all the gaps, and then filling them in with recycled branches. By the time we were finished our tree was transformed to its full potential, standing with pride as if it had the opportunity to grow in a more temperate climate without competition and permafrost.
Finally, it was time to break out the lights, garland, and ornaments and get this conifer all spruced up. (Pun intended.)
Decorating was bittersweet. We have a photo ornament with the dogs’ pictures, and this is our first Christmas without them. Was it only 12 months ago that I was forcing those poor hounds to pose for yet another annual photo under the tree? It was strange enough not to have them bounding at our side as we searched for a tree, but hanging their ornament was especially sobering.
Sam and Maggie were so giddy about the tree trimming that they kept our spirits up. Most ornaments brought about happy memories: photos from the kids’ first Christmases, mementos from beloved family vacations, and a growing collection of homemade decorations the kids have created at school. It was Sam’s turn to hang the star, and Clark lifted him to the top for the noble job:
It was a school night, so once the tree was decorated the kids scurried off to bed. They were anxious to set up the train, another family tradition, but that had to wait one more day.
This train seems to grow more and more every year. It started as a simple circle around the base of the tree, and has somehow evolved into a cross country railroad that takes over half of our living room. And go figure, this year the train has a trestle. Apparently toy train shopping is the only type of holiday shopping Clark enjoys!
It took Clark and the kids half the night to set up the railway, but the Polar Express is now fully functional.
And so the tradition is once again complete.
I’m actually grateful that we didn’t find a flawless tree yesterday. This year we have some gaps of our own, as we grieve our dogs and miss our families, making due with mail order gifts and Skype. Unfortunately neither of those voids can be patched with recycled spruce boughs.
But as I look at this beautiful tree, precariously dangling our family memories from every available branch, I am filled with anticipation. Soon it will be surrounded with gifts of gratitude, and on Christmas Eve it will be a centerpiece for laughter with dear friends. On Christmas morning our little family will gather around it in our pajamas, ignoring the breakfast baking in the oven so we can soak up every moment in which our children still believe. There is much to celebrate.
This year’s tree was far from perfect, but it’s perfect for us.