This year our neighbors, Bob and Bette, swiped our Christmas tree.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, they walked through our meadow and stumbled upon a little spruce tree growing on the path that connects our properties. Spruce trees are rare here in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Most of our fir trees are white pines with needles as fine as baby hair; unsuitable for holding ornaments. A spruce is a find. A real gem. One in a gazillion.
“We found a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree at the edge of your meadow,” Bette texted. “We don’t know if it’s growing on your property or ours, but we want to take it for our last Christmas in Connecticut! Do you mind?” They’re moving to California next year and we’re a little bummed out about it. Things just won’t be the same around here.
I asked her to tag the tree so I could have a look at it before I gave the go ahead. Not because I had any right to say no, property lines are fuzzy in the woods, but a sudden possessive ‘Mine!’ rose up in me; that perverse feeling you get when you think you’re losing something, even if, until now, you hadn’t known of it’s existence.
The next day, Bette did more than tag the tree; she tied a big red bow on its uppermost branch. I couldn’t miss it as I crested the hill with my dog. It was that big red bow. Truth is, I couldn’t remember ever noticing that perfect little tree until the big red bow.
I’ve always thought of trees as spiritual beings. They’re perhaps the most generous beings on earth, offering shade when things get too hot, wood to build our shelters with, the warmth of a fire, ashes that regenerate life, and even oxygen. Trees give us life. They give us breath. They’re a quiet and gentle reminder to live our lives as they do, with compassion and generosity.
This little tree with its big red bow looked to be in high spirits.
And why not? Right in the middle of nowhere, growing quite by accident, it had been noticed. I realized the little tree must have been on that path for a few years now. I’ve tripped over it, gotten my dog’s leash tangled in it, pushed the branches out of my way a million times, but there’s one thing I hadn’t done; I hadn’t actually noticed it. Bob and Bette did.
I didn’t really have a say in it; everything was now just a formality, but I texted Bette. “Go ahead and cut the tree. It looks so cute!” And it did, look cute and…somehow jovial. The way you feel when you doll yourself up and the right people pay attention.
I half-heartedly looked around the meadow for a second spruce, but the chances were slim and I knew it, so Saturday afternoon, Dave and I began the annual hunt for our own Christmas tree.
“We’ll go back to the place we went last year,” I suggested, “with the fun Edison lights and the Christmas shop. We’ll buy a new ornament for the tree.” When we pulled in, there were a few people wandering around the Christmas shop, but not many people seemed to be buying trees. I found a beautiful Douglas fir and flipped over the tag.
$120. I bent down to look at the stump. Maybe this was one of those potted trees we could plant in the spring. But, no. One hundred and twenty dollars for a cut tree that would only last through the holidays.
“$120!!!” This from Dave. “That’s highway robbery!”
And seeing my disappointment, he added, “but, if you really want one of these trees…” He pulled his wallet out. Acts of love come in all sorts of packages. You just have to keep your heart open so you don’t miss them. Except I couldn’t let him do it. He’d been at work from sunup to sundown for the last six days.
I turned on my heel. “Let’s go,” I said. “At those prices they can keep them!” Dave agreed. We left in a huff. We became a team, a force against Christmas corruption!
But where to go? We sat in the car for a moment thinking of other places that were selling trees.
“Price gouging,” I heard Dave grumble.
“If we buy an artificial one at Walmart,” I said, “we’ll never have to do this again.” He turned to look at me.
Never have to do this again?
Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? Wasn’t this supposed to be a ritual that exemplified our Christmas spirit! This was a lack of Christmas cheer!
Then… a dastardly thought…Bob and Bette’s tree. The little spruce all lit up in their living room. On Christmas morning, they’d leave to visit their daughter in California. If they left early enough, we could steal our tree back, lift it from their living room, ornaments and all, Grinch-style, and put it up in our living room. Who would know?
I started the car, ditched the idea. “There’s the cider mill,” I said, “They were selling trees.”
The cider mill, just up the road a mile or two, was a bustle of activity. Four old men ran the show. The temperature hovered around 22 degrees and the air felt raw. A meagre fire in a rusty old barrel threw out half-hearted sparks, but no warmth. Dave asked one of the old guys how much they were asking for the trees.
“They range in price from $55 to $110, sir. All different kinds.” The old man’s nose was purple-veined and swollen from the cold.
“So,” Dave said pulling his wallet out, “which ones are the…”
The old man spit. “Sir! point to a tree! Just point and I’ll give you a price!” Dave and I shot each other a look.
There are moments-we’ve all experienced them-when the world, for contrary reasons of its own, is determined to knock the weak spark of Christmas tree joy right the heck out of you.
This was one of them.
Dave scowled and disappeared into the trees as the old man went off in the other direction.
I found Dave working out three $20 bills from his wallet with his own set of frozen, working-man’s hands. His coat had come undone, exposing his chest to the cold. He looked done in.
“Um,” I said, “I heard that man say he must be tired.”
“Yeah…well,” Dave sighed, “I guess we’re all tired.”
We went back to the old man and the two of us obediently pointed to a tree. I watched the old man’s raw and calloused fingers as he snugged it to the roof rack. “Well, anyway,” he said, “Merry Christmas!” And he even waved.
As Dave backed the car out, I saw the old man standing by the fire, waiting for his next customer.
They say that Christmas is not about the presents or the food. I think they’re right. It’s a time to slow down, pay attention. If your leash gets tangled, take a moment to see just what the heck.
If you think about it, Christmas trees prove that transforming yourself from something ordinary into something magnificent isn’t as hard as you imagine.