Reminiscing – Christmas trees
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By BETTY BIVINS COOK
For most of my growing up years, the Christmas trees in our home were Cedars, cut from somewhere on our little farm and carefully decorated with treasured ornaments and the same short string of lights each year.
Of course, there was the year that Daddy brought in a Holly tree instead. In Mother’s family, a Holly was often used, so it felt like a Christmas tree to her. To me, it lacked the charm of our feathery Cedars.
There was also the year that Daddy put off going to get a tree and a rainy spell began that made it far too wet for him to go into the woods to find a Christmas tree. That year, he went into town and bought a pitiful looking artificial tree that closely resembled a bottle brush.
Anyway, after I married, Royce and I continued the tradition of my childhood for many years, several times, heading back to Dallas where we lived at the time, with a Cedar tree tied to the roof of the car. These trees were often difficult to get in the tree stand and could only hold a limited number of lights and lightweight ornaments, but they were beautiful.
In later years, we began visiting a Christmas tree farm and choosing from the lovely, full trees offered there. They were beautiful and had sturdy enough branches to hold more lights and heavier ornaments, but I sometimes still missed the Cedars of yesteryear.
I guess my children felt the same way, since both of them have had Cedar trees in their home at Christmas over the years.
Karen got to talking about some of those trees as we were out and about the other day, and I asked her to write down what she had told me.
“One year, while we were living in Nacogdoches, where my husband Mike was recruiting, I got the urge to have a live tree for Christmas. We’d been using an artificial one ever since moving back to the United States from Germany. It was a nice tree, but didn’t have much personality and that year, I wanted something different.
Naturally, I couldn’t be content with a nice tree farm tree. No, I wanted the tree of my childhood, a nice cedar. My husband wasn’t thrilled but tromped all over my Grandpa Cook’s place with me to find the perfect tree.
This was easier said than done, as Grandpa spent lots of time on his big old International tractor, brush hogging and keeping the place neat as a pin. Most of the Cedars that came up were ruthlessly mowed down before they had a chance to get very big. After much hunting, we did finally find one down in the bottom where it was often too wet for the tractor to get through.
That tree went back to Nacogdoches with us, tied to the top of our car. Unlike the tree back in Germany, this one stayed put and made it home safely. I decorated it with twinkle lights and the lightest weight ornaments we had, and it turned out beautifully. So much in fact, that I left it up when we loaded up all the gifts and headed back to Gilmer to spend Christmas at Daddy and Mama’s house.
That turned out to be a big mistake, as the tree slurped up all the water in the tree stand and proceeded to completely dry out while we were gone. By the time we returned, the needles were dropping like rain all over the carpet. We took some old sheets and lay them on the floor all around the tree so the rest of the needles wouldn’t wind up in the carpet while I was getting the ornaments off. We dragged the sheets out with the tree on them to remove the lights outside. By the time we were through, the tree was skeletal, void of all but a few needles.
The fun was just getting started though. We had nice Berber carpet in the living room, and those Cedar needles that had fallen off clung tightly to it. I went over and over the area with the vacuum cleaner to no avail. I wound up on my hands and knees, crawling around picking the needles out of that carpet by hand.
You would think that this experience would have ended my desire to ever have a Cedar again, but as with many things, memories grew faint, and I forget the past troubles and had the urge once again to recreate the tree of childhood.
Now Mike didn’t grow up like I did and I’m pretty sure he saw more artificial trees than live over the years. But he was patient when I got the old Cedar urge again.
By this time, we had built a house on land once owned by my Bivins grandparents and he had retired from the Air Force. So, when I brought up the notion of hunting down a nice Cedar for that year, he agreed, and we headed down pasture on our acreage, hunting for a nicely shaped tree. I don’t know how far we walked during our search. I was just about tired enough to pack it in and drag out the artificial tree, but Mike had determined to find me a Cedar, and find one he was going to do. After I rejected many possibilities, he spotted one that was perfectly shaped, nice and full. The only problem was it was TALL. I hesitantly mentioned that it might be a bit too big, but he was sure it would work if we put it in the center of the living room wall, where the ceiling was vaulted.
So, chop, chop, chop went the axe and down came the tree. With him carrying the trunk end and me hefting the top, we dragged that tree out of the woods and up to the house.
When we started in the back door with it, we discovered that it had magically grown on the trip to the house. Once in the stand, it was too tall for even the vaulted ceiling in the living room. Back outside it went, losing a few inches of trunk as I fussed at length about losing a large section of the tree bottom that was part of the pretty shape. A second attempt got it standing up, but the top bent over about 12 inches at the ceiling. However, it was in the house, and it was up to me to decorate it.
I got out the old lightweight ornaments Mama had given me when I married, and the twinkle lights I’d used in the past. Those lights didn’t make a dent in that tree, so a trip to Walmart was in order. Armed with several new boxes of lights, I began going around the tree. I soon discovered that my regular step ladder wasn’t going to be adequate for the height of this tree. I had to drag in the tall step ladder from the barn and made many trips up and down it, putting on the lights and decorations. I had to scour all of our decorations, picking out those that weren’t too heavy and still barely had enough to fill the tree.
With the weight of the lights and ornaments, the tree’s branches spread out till it reached far out into the room. With presents around it, walking space around the tree was definitely limited.
I’d always hated taking down the Christmas tree, often leaving one up well into January. I pushed the limit with this one but had to admit defeat by the first week in January. The tree was getting very dry and had to go.
Of course, I’d forgotten the lesson of the dead tree back in Nacogdoches and didn’t put anything on the floor to catch falling needles. And a LOT of needles fell onto the carpet. By the time the tree went out the back door, the carpet was thickly littered with needles.
Now one of the bad things about Cedar needles is that they are somewhat sticky. Not realizing this at the time, I got to work with my nice, new, somewhat pricey vacuum cleaner. After a prolonged session of going back and forth over the carpet, I suddenly noticed an odd smell coming from the vacuum and then a puff of smoke. I immediately turned it off, but it was too late. I’d finished it off. Later investigation revealed that a bunch of those needles had stuck together, forming a clump that the vacuum could not get into the canister, and the motor had locked up.
So, in came the shop vac (which I should have thought of first) to get the remains of the needles out of the carpet. Even with that, for many weeks after, my bare feet would find a sharp needle poking out of the carpet.
You would think that this lesson would stick with me, especially since I had to go buy another vacuum cleaner to replace the one the tree finished off. However, as the years went by, I once again developed the urge to have another Cedar tree for Christmas. This time however, Mike didn’t want anything to do with it. Daughter, Diana, who was now grown said that she and I could find one and she could cut it down.
This time, a search of the acreage behind our house didn’t yield a tree, so we loaded up in the old Ford truck, and went putting around the land behind what had been my Cook grandparent’s home. We saw several trees that would have worked but weren’t quite satisfied with any of them. Finally, towards the end of our loop around the fence line, Diana hit the brakes, and pointed to a tree. It was beautiful. We walked around it and declared it the one. She grabbed the saw and made short work of cutting it down.
This tree exhibited the same trait as the previous one of year’s past. It grew on the way to the truck. We got it in the truck bed, and there was still a lot of tree hanging off of the tailgate. I’d had about an 8-footer in mind, but it was pretty obvious that this tree was a bit taller than that. Diana noted that since it wouldn’t be right against the wall, the tree would have some extra ceiling height so should be fine.
The first problem arose when we could not find the tree stand that we’d used in the past. It was nowhere to be found, so off we went to Walmart to find one. Naturally, they didn’t have a single one, so we had to go to Longview and get one at Lowes.
Then came the second problem. Our old stand had really long bolts that could hold even a skinny tree trunk firmly. The new stand had much shorter bolts which didn’t come close to clamping the tree trunk. I cast back in my memory, and vaguely remembered seeing Granddaddy Bivins using blocks of wood between the bolts and tree trunk to secure it in the stand.
So, we went to find some pieces of wood to use. You would think that after all the years we’d now been in this house, that somewhere on the place, there would be a suitable piece of wood. But there wasn’t. Finally, Diana spotted a tree branch in the burn pile that was about 4 inches in diameter. She dragged it up to the driveway and got after it with the old hand saw she’d used to cut down the tree. It took some doing, but she finally had 4 pieces of wood to use.
It took several attempts, with the tree twisting one way, then another, to finally get it in the stand snuggly enough that we thought it might stay. By this time, we were both sweaty and exhausted. It didn’t help matters any that we were having one of the famous Texas warm and humid spells that felt less than seasonal.
I was still unsure of the security of the stand, so hearkening back to our experience with our tree in Germany, I went digging for twine and hooks. We secured the tree to the wall to ensure that it stayed upright.
Lights and decorations were carefully added to avoid unnecessary movement of the tree and finally, late in the day, it was done. Some years, we might have sat back with a cup of hot chocolate to enjoy the finished tree; this year, we opted for iced tea.
I have to admit that a large part of the fond memories from these homegrown Cedar trees come not from the tree itself, but the process; searching for the perfect tree while spending time with a loved one is a special thing.
Since that last Cedar tree, the closest thing to a live tree that has been in our living room is a nice, potted Norfolk Pine about 2 feet in height.
A few days back, Mike and I traveled to Abilene for a brief visit with Diana. As we were traveling home, we passed many areas that were full of beautifully shaped Cedars, of a different variety than what we have. I mused that one of them would make a gorgeous Christmas tree. Getting no response from the spouse, I glanced over at him. He finally looked my way and stated simply that I needn’t get any ideas.
Needless to say, there isn’t a live tree in the house this year (except for that potted pine) and chances are pretty good that there won’t be again. However, I have the memories!