Christmas. We officially have 12 days until the big day (hmmm, that reminds me of a song…). And it’s beginning to look a lot like this much-anticipated holiday around here. I mean, we have snow. Lots and lots of sparkling snow, the lights are up, the wreath is on the door, and, much to the pug’s dismay, I scrounged up his Santa suit.
But really, you can’t wear a Santa suit, dog or human, without the Christmas tree. I mean, that would just be ridiculous. And out here at the ranch, hands down the best thing about Christmas has always been the Christmas tree.
Because the search for the perfect tree out in the wild pastures of western North Dakota is an event. It is a hunt. It is magic. It is anticipation and adventure and tradition in its purest form and everything that makes the season so damn delightful.
That’s right, we do the tree thing old school.
And by old school I mean bundling up in our snowsuits and neckerchiefs (and facemasks if it’s really cold out there) and scouting out the 3,000 acres of semi-rugged snow covered landscape for a cedar that looks like it might fit nicely in the corner of our little house covered in twinkling lights and sparkly balls and glitter and candy canes and presents and a cat climbing up the middle… well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.
And then, when the clouds open up and the light shines on that particularly spectacular tree the men of the land whip out their hand-saws and gently detach it from the earth and drag it home to live the remainder of its life on the receiving end of “oooo” and “ahhhh” while providing shelter to the perfectly wrapped presents placed beneath it.
Not a bad life for a tree. Probably beats being pooped on by birds….
Anyway, my family and the families who live out here as our neighbors and friends have been cutting Christmas trees off of their land as a tradition since the homesteading days. And that is the world I was transported to every time we went out with pops on a blustery, sunny December day to fetch ourselves the centerpiece of Christmas when we were young.
I found myself imagining how it used to be, hitching up a horse to a sleigh and venturing out into the hills on a mission to make a tiny, drafty, house standing strong against the season in the middle of a lonely winter farmstead feel a little warmer with the sweet smell of cedar–the land’s gift to those who had worked it all year.
I envisioned a family gathering around the tree standing humbly decorated in green and red singing the same carols we continue to sing to this day, opening their stockings, tasting the recipes that have been passed down, moving in close to one another under the branches, smiling in the glow of the season.
I imagine a simple, quiet holiday with the cattle in the yard and the snow falling softly outside and families giving thanks for the life that they lead….
So you see, the Christmas tree has never been just a tree to me. It has been a feeling. A process. A ritual. The best memory of the season.
And you can imagine I have quite a bit to say about the whole business of my Christmas tree, because last week, husband and I ventured out to find it…
…the same way I did when I was a kid.
A kid in my mini Carharts and Santa hat, with a little twinkle in my eye put there by the whole holiday spirit thing, stepping in my dad’s foot prints in the deep snow, hand shading my eyes, scoping out my world for a glimpse of the perfect tree—a tree that would bring Christmas to my house….and if I was lucky, Santa too.
I am not positive, but I think dad would have the tree located long before December and, in the snowy years, probably used the tractor to plow a trail right to its location. But my sisters and I were convinced we were essential company on this hunt and when we finally found it, we would exclaim over and over how beautiful, how perfectly shaped and proportioned, how lovely it would look in our house. And then–our favorite part–pops would cut us a couple branches that would sit in coffee cans in our rooms, decorated with our own set of colored lights and ornaments we had made ourselves.
Oh, I loved this. I loved having Christmas in my room. I would load that little branch up with so many lights, so much tinsel, an excess of reindeer shaped ornaments and snowflakes and popcorn and cranberry strands creating a Christmas explosion that caused that little tree to collapse under the weight of all that love and joy.
Yup, it would tip right over.
Every night—ka boom.
But I didn’t care, I just propped it back up, brushed off the glitter and climbed back in bed to admire the twinkling lights as I drifted off to sleep and marked another day off the calendar on my countdown to Christmas.
I know you all have been there. I know you can remember the feeling–that feeling when you found yourself as a child in the middle of winter in your bunny slippers, your heart full of wonder and joy and anticipation at the sight of the lights, the taste of peppermint on your lips, the smell of the cedar tree…
…oh how that smell transports me…
So here we are, husband and I, at the ranch for Christmas. And so it seems we made a little tradition, a little unspoken pact that as long as we were blessed enough to be here, we would celebrate the simple, time-honored things by venturing out and cutting ourselves a cedar.
But let me remind you here about the size of our house: it’s small. And we have a lot of furniture crammed in here. So I wasn’t sure we could manage a tree this year. And if we did, it would have to be pretty modest.
But apparently husband had a different idea entirely and as we headed out into the crisp, clear, December day, it became quiet evident that his eyes and his holiday heart were a bit bigger than the room we have in our house.
Because as we scanned the landscape in our snowsuits, eternally grateful for my brother-in-law’s generous donation of a snowmobile for this adventure, my suggestions and hand waves and hikes up to the reserved and unassuming trees I envisioned would fit nicely in our little home were met with the following statements:
“What, you want a Christmas branch?”
“A Charley Brown tree? We can’t have a Charley Brown tree.”
“Seriously, how small are you thinking?”
And my favorite:
“How is Santa going to know where to put the presents if he can’t find the damn tree?”
And so our search continued, up hills, around bends, scaring coyotes from the draws and the dogs, not to miss something this significant, huffing and puffing through the drifts behind us.
This one’s too big. This one’s too small. This one we’ll save for our next house. This one would look good in Rockefeller Center.
It started to get dark.
We split up, husband on the mobile, me on foot. Damn the machine, we had to do this the old way.
I followed my feet down a cliff and out into a clearing where a tree that looked the perfect size from half a mile away sure grew mighty fast as I crept up on it.
Husband took to the hills behind me, testing, I am thinking, his wild-man side on his new toy. And as I stood looking up in amazement at the giant cedar thinking we should turn in for the day and try a different pasture tomorrow, husband swept up behind me (not so quietly…not as peacefully as I had envisioned the whole process) and killed the engine.
“Oh, look over there…” he whispered behind me and I turned to find him pointing to the horizon where two big mule deer bucks were creeping along the top of the butte as the sun dipped below the landscape.
We sucked in the cold air as we watched those creatures, unconcerned by the entire spectacle of tree hunting and the snow monsters on two legs causing a stir below them. Our mouths hung open in awe, our breath creating misty puffs in the cold weather as the animals pawed and scraped at the frozen earth and then, finally found a proper place to bed down for the night…
I am not sure how long we stood in silence and watched the beasts hunkering down against the season, so quietly, so magnificently, but when we finally broke our gaze, we followed our eyes down from the butte and found they settled on a tree that looked like it just might work.
A tree that we just might have room for in our home.
Well, at least that’s what husband said to me and I agreed, caught up in the magic of it all.
So out came the saw and, just like that, the top of the spruce was detached from the land and tied to the back of the snowmobile, transforming it from a racing machine to a modern day sleigh.
Off we went, in the snow, into the sunset, me, my husband and my Christmas tree (oh, and the dogs… the shivery, snowy dogs in our wake.)
And when we approached the house with the cedar trailing behind, a bit of reality began to creep up on me. There was no way this magnificent tree was going to fit in that door. We were going to have to take out all of the furniture. We were going to have to build an extra room.
One of us was going to have to move out…
But husband was determined. Determined. And miraculously he got the tree into the entryway to thaw out, blocking us inside for a good day and a half. And when I climbed out the window to get to work the next day, I came home to find that husband had indeed found a place for our Christmas tree.
A pretty perfect place really. I mean, I don’t actually need to get to my desk. And I don’t mind branches tickling my ears as I’m reading the paper on the couch.
I don’t mind at all.
So I spent a good two days decorating and humming Christmas carols to myself and falling asleep gazing at its twinkling lights and remembering that enchanting evening when it found us.
…and it hasn’t tipped over yet…
But if it does, I won’t mind, because I am eight again…
I am eight years old every time I walk in my door and the smell of cedar fills my lungs….
…I think husband knew that would happen…
And that, my friend, is the best thing about Christmas.