Every year, on either December 23rd or 24th, my family cuts down a Christmas tree. They pile into the van, and follow winding roads into the Kananaskis, carols sung by the choir of Trinity College Cambridge playing through the car stereo Eventually they pull into a trailhead chosen by my dad after consulting mountain maps and the tree cutting permit. But since one doesn't find Christmas trees on trails, the family disperses, outfitted with boots and gators, willy-nilly off-road, through forests of knee-deep snow.
When in the wild, one assumes that every small symmetrical spruce tree will fit into our living room. When one summons the family to consult over your choice of a potential, some complaint is always raised. Usually, it's that the tree is too tall. Or the branches are too thick. Or not thick enough.
(A friend once told me how his family would get their tree by going to their back forty and firing their guns at the top of a tall trunk until its tip fell off. Tips of tall tress almost always look good.)
In the end, there is usually more than one finalist in our tree selection. Since nobody can quite agree which one would look best in the living room, and since the cutting permit includes up to three trees, both of our top choices are cut down with Dad's orange saw and carried on shoulders back to the car. My Dad's former career as a tall-ship sailing instructor reasserts itself, as he ties both trees to the roof of our van, using an ingenious assembly of ropes, cords, and clever knots. The rest of the family huddles in the car, heaters at full blast, the mountain dusk settling around them.
Once home, gators and boots are scattered around the door, as each tree takes its place in the witness box of our living room. The winning specimen is mounted in the tree stand, while the looser suffers the ignoble fate of being hacked to pieces and served up as firewood. (A resting place that the victor, twelve days later, will also join; a reminder that despite our conquests and victories, the grave will swallow us all.)
After the honoured tree is given a chance to let its branches rest and recover their natural figure, my dad gets the honour of trying to fix our string of white lights, while we all sit around hoping and praying that they actually work. (This happens every year. Never have we thought ahead and purchased a new set.) When the string finally comes alive, a cheer goes forth and Dad tastefully drapes them on the branches, the tip of the tree always receiving its own single bulb. I, being the tallest, always get the honour of mounting that branch with the straw star, symbol of my childhood.
By now, the rest of the family has attacked the tree with our 20 year old collection of ornaments, a mixture of small, tasteful decorations from my childhood (at least, those that have survived this far) - each one conjuring the very spirit of Christmases past - along with the larger, tackier objects that were received as gifts in the years since. (I'm surprised my minimalist mother hasn't thrown them out by now.) Last year, my brother insisted on including every single Christmas ball he purchased from thrift stores over the year. I hope this year he's grown out of that fancy.
The finished tree, lit and tinkling, with splashes of gold and red, is ready to provide the backdrop to an evening filled with the aromas of French onion soup, stories and read-alouds with our 93-year-old grandfather, and the rest of the family happily exchanging gifts.
And that is how the tree arrives in our home; at least, usually. Certain years, when everyone is sick, Mum just goes to Greengate on the 24th and picks up, discounted to $5, the tree that has the most live needles (picking it up by the trunk and stamping it on the ground is the best way to tell).
I would love to have posted a cozy photo of the Christmas tree on our car, admidst the falling snow; but this year, I stayed home, rested from my cold, and wrapped presents.