Traditions – old and new

I have an unnatural fear of falling Christmas trees. Much like my intense fear of birds, this fear may be unnatural but is in no way irrational.

For nearly as long as I can remember, my family always chose and cut down our own Christmas tree. Living along the northern edge of suburban Minneapolis meant we were in relatively close proximity to what is generally referred to only as “up north.” Within an hour or so in the car, we could find ourselves in the heart of what I always considered uncharted wilderness — filled with my friends’ cabins, a whole bunch of Minnesota’s famed lakes, and apparently, prime growing conditions for Christmas trees. Every year, we made the trek to one of a few Christmas Tree Farms to pick out the perfect one, and sometimes we would bring along visiting family members who were eager to bring back a real “northwoods” tree home to Indiana or Illinois (which, at that time, I considered the Deep South).

When I was around 10 or 11 years old, with various extended family members in tow, we headed out on such a trek. We started the day as we had in so many years past – driving up and down the rows until we got to the section of trees with the pedigree my parents happened to be seeking that year. I never personally bothered to learn the difference between a Blue Spruce and a Frasier Fir, but my parents seemed to be able to narrow down the endless acres of trees to limit our choices to a 50-yard radius. I’m not sure what kind of tree we were looking for that year, but I do know we eventually hopped out – my dad with his rusty saw in hand, my brother and I clothed in our bib snowpants, Starter jackets, and Sorels.

The visiting family quickly chose a fine specimen, while my dad and brother wandered off down the rows in search of our own tree. While I stood examining some charming trees nearby, I heard them call out, “We found it! How ‘bout this one?” I trudged through the knee-deep snow, finding them staring at what I considered to be the ugliest Christmas tree I had ever seen.

“It’s fat,” I said, in the characteristic bluntness of an attitude-filled pre-teen.

“What’s wrong with a fat Christmas tree?” my dad asked.

“Why don’t we mix it up this year?” added my mom.

And before I knew it, the saw hit the trunk of the tree, at the hands of my over-anxious brother. To my horror, the saw went back and forth, and there was no turning back now. This tree would be ours.

I spent the 15 minutes of sawing collapsed in a mound of snow, sobbing my spoiled little eyes out. I wasn’t sure what it was about the tree, besides it being fat and ugly, that had caused me to throw myself into the depths of despair, but I was sure that this tree was trouble, and I would do no part in supporting its journey into our home.

As you might imagine, this was the very tree that led to my lifelong, unnatural (not irrational!) fear. Not only did the big fat tree fall off the car on the highway on the way home, but it also fell down again in the house. The fact that I was home alone when our decorated tree collapsed in the living room, crushing some of our favorite ornaments, was not something I would ever let my parents forget; I had predicted this tree would be trouble, and trouble it surely was.

This experience, while obviously terrifying, did not taint my love of this tradition. I still accompanied my family to the Christmas tree farm the next year and subsequent seasons, patiently reminding them that the more slender trees were safer and more practical, and watching my dad carefully as he tied down our bundled choices before driving away.  As much as the experience had clearly scarred me for life, I was not willing to let anything stand in the way of the continuation of a well-established tradition.

Traditions run deep in our family, and I’ve always been a staunch supporter of upholding them, despite any possible obstacles. For example, I insisted on setting out cookies for Santa long after my brother and I knew that my parents would just be returning the Oreos to the package after we went to bed. Also, I faithfully took my place in the assembly-line creation of the annual “Bubble Wreath” on Christmas Eve, which resulted in a super sticky, cinnamon-y, overly-sweet breakfast bread that I could never find it in me to even consume. It was enough for me to watch my family gobble up this traditional maraschino-encrusted meal on Christmas morning while I nibbled on an Entenmann’s chocolate donut. I would even go so far as to insist that we all gather ‘round for the reading of the Christmas Story on Christmas Eve night, even when we had all just arrived home exhausted after midnight church services. It was tradition, and I do not let traditions die.

College brought an interesting transition, however, when my brother and I found ourselves away from home during the days leading up to the holidays, and I gradually found some of our traditions falling by the wayside. Advent calendars no longer seemed like a vital part of my December days, and it didn’t seem right for an 18-year-old to continue placing carrots by the fireplace for Rudolph. My parents (now living in the “Deep South” of Indiana themselves) are the proud owners of a 15-foot artificial (gasp!) tree, and the Bubble Wreath is not always served on Christmas morning, depending on which of us are present.

But now that we’re grown up, we’ve begun establishing our own traditions, possibly rooted in the memories we have of Christmases past. It always makes me smile to unearth some of the sequin-adorned, quilted, and knitted decorations created lovingly by my grandmothers, and I display them proudly in the home I now share with my husband. Likewise, I love hearing about his own Christmas memories, and getting a glimpse into the life of a young Anthony when we hang some of his old ornaments, such as polar bears playing soccer and tiny handmade rocking horses. We are also amassing a small collection of our own “married” decorations, and continue to add to it with each year, creating new, shared, memories along the way.

While we haven’t established a whole lot of die-hard traditions yet, we have done one thing two years in a row now that we hope to continue in the years to come, so it’s as close as we have come to a “new tradition.” Based on our combined childhood experiences, Anthony and I have come to the conclusion that we must have a real-live Christmas tree, and we must cut it down ourselves.

The whole ordeal is much different from the one I grew up with, but it’s also very much the same. Instead of heading to northern Minnesota, we head into the mountains to a town called Nederland, which is also what I consider to be vast wilderness. Instead of going to a Christmas tree farm, we go the home of a good friend’s parents, who have acres and acres of “wild” trees of their own. And instead of a big fat, lush, Frasier Fir, we choose the least-spindly tree we can find.

Last year's tree-cutting adventure

Our new tradition involves a day spent trudging through deep snow with friends and our dogs, bringing home a tree that needs a lot of love and tinsel, with branches that can barely hold all of our ornaments. Despite my history of decorating lush, groomed trees, I’ve come to love these “Charlie Brown” trees, and consider them a symbol of new beginnings, a new family, and new traditions to come.

Nederland tree-chopping, 2011

However, the one thing that still brings me anxiety is the drive home from Nederland, and it has nothing to do with the often-treacherous icy mountain roads. Before we even depart, I insist on extra rope as we tie down our tree to the Subaru, and I intently watch the side mirror from the passenger seat – watching for any movement of our rooftop cargo. Upon arrival home, I am careful to twist the screws on the tree stand as tightly as possible into the narrow trunk of our skinny tree, and find myself breathing a sigh of relief every time I arrive home from work and the tree is still standing. I guess some things never change.

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