1900 – Papa and the boys hitch Old Dobbin to the bobsled and set off into the nearby woods, looking for the perfect Christmas tree. Dobbin’s harness jingles merrily and the boys’ cheeks are red with excitement as they head up the hill.
Meanwhile, Mama and the girls finish stringing cranberries and popped corn into long red and white ropes that will decorate the tree, then Mama heats a big pan of mulled cider and the girls set out plates of molasses cakes.
Harness bells are heard drawing closer and soon the door bursts open. A tall, fragrant tree is carried triumphantly into the warm room, its piney scent mingling with the spicy odor of the cider.
Papa sets the tree carefully into a pail of sand and the red and white ropes are wound around it. A wooden star, shiny with gold paint, is fastened securely to the top.
The family softly sing their favorite hymns, “Adeste Fidelis” and “Oh Holy Night” as candle holders with tiny beeswax candles are clamped to the sturdiest branches. A bucket of water is placed behind the tree and Mama lights the candles. The bright tree glows with life.
Mugs of steaming cider and molasses cakes are passed around and everyone agrees this is the most beautiful tree ever.
By the time the candles flicker out it’s time for bed. The children hang their stockings from the mantle, leave a glass of milk and a molasses cake for Saint Nicholas and are soon fast asleep.
Later that evening, quiet figures are glimpsed setting lumpy packages carefully under the tree. There are hand knit caps, mittens and scarves for all, and carved wooden dolls and prancing horses. The girls are given lengths of calico with matching ribbons, and sturdy boots are set out for the boys. A few peppermint sticks go into each stocking.
The house grows quiet once again and the proud tree stands watch as strains of “Silent Night” are heard far in the distance.
1960 – Dad, Mom and the kids pile into the station wagon, heading for the nearest Christmas tree lot. The kids sing “Jingle Bells” at the top of their lungs, mittened and scarved against the cold night.
Once there, they carefully look over the selection. The flocked and spray-painted trees catch their eyes, and a few metallic trees set back under a shelter interest Mom briefly, but they settle on a beautiful noble fir, straight and tall. Dad ties it securely to the top of the station wagon and they rush home to set it up.
Mom stirs up a pan of hot chocolate while Dad stretches out across the shag carpet and the kids hold the tree upright in the tree stand. He firmly tightens the screws that hold it in place and water is added to the base. The house fills with the piney fragrance of the tree.
The lights are next, the strands laid out in rows, each strand then plugged into an electrical outlet to make sure the fat, round bulbs light. One unlit bulb means an entire strand is dark so each one has to be carefully tested. “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” blasts out of the record player, followed by “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and ”Jingle Bell Rock.”
Fragile glass ornaments have been packed away from year to year and now they’re unwrapped to loud “OOHS” and “AAHS.” Everyone carefully hangs their favorites, then an ornate golden spire is fastened to the very top.
Mom passes around handfuls of silver tinsel with orders to hang one strand at a time. It isn’t long before this gets tedious and when Mom isn’t looking the kids begin to hang it by bunches, then finally clumps of tinsel are sneaked onto the back branches and the job is done.
Leaning back, admiring their efforts over steaming cups of cocoa, potato chips with French onion soup dip and snickerdoodle cookies, everyone agrees this is the most beautiful tree ever. Bedtime seems to come too soon but suddenly everyone realizes how tired they are. The stockings are hung from the mantel, milk and cookies are set out for Santa Claus and the family is off to bed.
Much later, Mom and Dad slip out and set gaudily wrapped packages under the tree. There are new crinolines for the girls and Levis for the boys. There are stacks of games, Betsy-Wetsy dolls and an E-Z-Bake oven, also Tinker Toy sets and an electric train. Apples, oranges and walnuts fill the stockings and all grows quiet again.
The noble fir stands watch and faint strains of “Oh Tannenbaum” are heard from afar.
TODAY -Great-grandmother wrestles a tall, narrow box out of her hall closet and slides the contents out onto the tiled kitchen floor. She begins to assemble her Christmas tree while the TV streams her favorite carols, including “Adeste Fidelis,” “Oh Holy Night” and “Tannenbaum”.
She fits each section of the tree into the next, clicks the stand together and sets it upright. The dangling electric cord is plugged into the nearest outlet and her tree sparkles and twinkles with multi-colored lights. In this age of instant gratification she gets a laugh out of her “instant” tree.
She pours herself a glass of wine and reaches for her box of ornaments, a treasure box of memories. Each ornament has been saved over the years for its special meaning.
As she sips her wine she unpacks the ornaments one by one, handling them lovingly and recalling the person who gave each to her or the special occasion it represents. Many are hand made, some by childish fingers and some by fellow craftspeople she’s known and worked with. A delicate golden angel, her own creation, tops the tree.
She misses the fragrance of real pine boughs just as she misses the color, the companionship and excitement of other years and other trees. Finally she sits back, sips her wine and nibbles at a gluten-free cookie, listening to the strains of “Silver Bells.” Tears come into her eyes and a lump forms in her throat, as she thinks of the many loved ones gone from her life.
And then her iPhone peals out “Jingle Bells.” She wipes her tears and picks it up to answer. A lisping voice cries out “Merry Christmas, GiGi, we’re on our way,” and she laughs in delight. Her beautiful little tree twinkles at her merrily and she hears “Jingle Bells” in the distance.