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In search of the perfect Christmas treed

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By Janny Wilcke

In December of 1970 when our first child was a baby, my husband and I lived in a tiny house overlooking miles of prairie near Auburn, Kansas. Given my fascination with pioneers, I decided that, like Kansans of long ago, we should use a tumbleweed for a Christmas tree. I was excited to relive this tradition, and so we bundled up our baby and hiked onto a pasture in search of a suitable tumbleweed from among the many that piled up on the barbed wire fences along the north side. We found a large, symmetrical one that we carried home and placed in a secure corner of our yard for safekeeping until we had time to bring it in and decorate it.

Alas, one of those famous Kansas winds picked up during the night and blew our tumbleweed loose, sending it scurrying across the prairie while we slept. In the morning it was gone.  I asked my husband about going after another, to which he replied, “It’s up to you, Honey, but I think it’s an ugly fire hazard.” Disliking even a thought of a fire, I reluctantly gave up my dream of a having a pioneer tumbleweed Christmas tree. But that incident embodied the essence of my feelings about Christmas trees, which, through the years, often put me at odds with my children. 

I am a romantic. When I grew up in the East, I always wanted to cut an evergreen from our woods, and never an ideal one. I wanted one I could rescue and transform with popcorn strings and shiny bulbs into a humble and meaningful shelter for brightly wrapped packages. As an adult, I still yearned for such a tree. Every year I suggested to our children that we follow the example of bygone years and make do with a tree from our own farm, only to be confronted with disappointed outcries from my brood that Christmas wouldn’t seem right – might even be “ruined” - without a seven-foot tree of pine-needled branches in symmetrical array.

I can’t explain the difference in our attitudes. One would think that my maternal influence would have swayed their thinking. My husband certainly never lobbied for an ideal tree, always glad to settle the matter whichever way it went. Yet, when I was a child, I remember a lovely poem about a little misshapen tree that waited longingly in the woods to be chosen by someone at Christmas. Maybe it is some odd expression of my need to nurture that makes me want to find a neglected tree and give it purpose (and maybe it’s also because I am kind of thrifty!)  Whatever the reason, I never could get the kids to appreciate my longing for a humble tree.

My children are grown now and choose their own beautifully shaped trees, even the youngest in an apartment for the first time. But as a result, I finally got to select my own tree and I was almost giddy at the prospect. Unfortunately, the only evergreen trees in our woods here in Henry County are cedars that, while looking good from a distance, dry quickly and have serious shortcomings. When I asked my husband about taking one of them for a Christmas tree, his reply sounded vaguely familiar, “It’s up to you, Honey, but I think it’s an ugly fire hazard.”

Finally my attention turned to a large sickly spruce tree in our yard. Several months ago, my husband decided that he was going to cut it down.  The top of the tree, the five feet above the brown and damaged branches, was still green.  Perfect, I thought, and that little “tree” now sits in our living room. I fondly circled it in a string of lights and hung decorations accumulated in over forty years of marriage. Many branches jut out from one side, almost none from the other. The “trunk” bends at a forty-five degree angle, so that the twinkling star I put on top hangs nearly perpendicular to the floor, and we had to secure it to the wall so that it wouldn’t fall over.

But to me, it is the “perfect” Christmas tree. When I look at it, I’m transported back to a time when life was simpler, and when a misshapen tree, or even a lowly and scrawny tumbleweed, could serve as a proud symbol of the spirit of the Christmas season.