The perfect Christmas tree

It’s Christmas morning and our bejeweled tree glows bright in the faint light of a crisp winter dawn. Its many radiant ornaments gathered over a lifetime of quiet salutations reflect the brilliant hues of its luminous bulbs, while also reflecting the love, family devotion and faith that have thankfully been ours during every annual celebration.

The tree itself is artificial and stands about six feet tall. Its general shape, breadth and short pliable needles replicate those of a young Douglas fir. Its simple stand is sturdy and stable; its lights are a balanced blend of soft white and rich vibrant colors. Adorned with countless coruscating memories that seasonally warm our hearts, it is, for us at least, the perfect tree.

Many years passed before I gradually came to accept the concept of an artificial Christmas tree. After all, absent is the overwhelming aromatic fragrance common to live conifers, and the joy and exhilaration of the harvest have given way to the comparatively mundane task of simply hauling the tree — in its cardboard container — from the attic to the living room. A synthetic tree bears no cones and is most often, by design, too perfect in anatomic structure and therefore, lacks truly unique characteristics.

A “real” tree, on the other hand, dries quickly after cutting, drops tons of needles and inevitably constitutes a fire hazard. Trees cut commercially and shipped to local retailers are generally expensive, yet struggle to survive the holidays. Those taken from the local forests are products of painfully slow growth and rightly take generations to replace. Though it’s true, trees cut locally are typically selected from groups of individuals in direct competition for space and light, the cutter must still decide who lives or dies, while invariably bringing home an awkward specimen too sparse to hold many lights, garland or weighty ornaments.

As the most widespread Christmastime tradition in the United States, decorating fresh evergreen trees actually originated in the German Bavarian forests. According to John H. Monnett in his book, “A Rocky Mountain Christmas: Yuletide Stories of the West” (Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder, Colo.), “Germans were one of the largest groups of immigrants to settle in the West, and they popularized Christmas trees among their neighbors along the frontier.”

Meanwhile, after the custom caught on in Great Britain during the 1840s, German and English settlers took advantage of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, and moved west to claim complimentary government land. There, they found an abundance of various conifers to choose from — all free for the taking — and soon ritualized the practice of spending an entire day searching for the perfect tree.

I too, eventually adopted a similar routine, but not until moving from the Midwest to Colorado in the mid-1970s.

In my youth during the 1950s, however, my immediate family commonly purchased Christmas trees from commercial dealers operating out of makeshift lots adjacent to a Dairy Queen or A&W Root Beer stand that had closed for the winter. In those days, such stores supplemented their seasonal summertime incomes by renting parking lot space for live tree and wreath sales, between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I still remember my excitement when, upon approaching one of the lots in dad’s car, we’d see the wavy strands of colorful holiday lights strung high between temporary poles surrounding the stacks of bundled trees.

On odd years, we drove to an actual tree farm where patrons were allowed to select from an assortment of living trees, depending on budget or size preference. I recall the hi-fi Christmas music crackling from loudspeakers, as dad or older brother, Jim, sawed through the trunk of our choice. Mom and my sisters, meanwhile, perused the wreaths, ornaments and other offerings, and strangely enough, we always seemed to return home with not only a great tree, but a jug of fresh apple cider and a bushel of sweet, homegrown apples.

Decorating, of course, was a family affair. As mom and dad looked on, my brother and I wrapped the tree with strings of colored lights, then mom joined in with the placement of ornaments. Extra care was given to hanging the older, more delicate bulbs in the higher branches, well out of reach of our cat, Cazzie Russell (named for a favorite basketball player at the time). Everyone pitched in with the tedious process of draping tinsel.

I should note that emphasis on ornament placement was vital, due to Cazzie’s propensity for racing through the kitchen and into the living room, then leaping headlong into the middle of the tree. He never actually knocked one over, but he certainly rocked a few.

Even in the ’50s, I vaguely remember seeing a few artificial trees, but in those days, it seems they were a shiny silver, blue, bright green or some other weird color, and only faintly resembled a tree at all. They held few if any ornaments and when erect, they were usually lit with a multi-tinted spotlight placed nearby.

As time passed, and my siblings and I moved on, mom and dad bought their first artificial tree. It was attractive and quite functional (and probably expensive), but upon stopping by, I missed the appeal of a live tree. At the time, obviously, I failed to recognize the ease and convenience an imitation tree afforded the older folks.

A few years later, after following my brother with a move to Vail, “skinny-skiing” into the nearby forest for a live spruce or fir became an annual affair. However, while we were skiers, we were only marginal cross-country skiers, and more than a few of our trees made it home, minus a limb or two … or three.

Perhaps the most memorable of our tree gathering jaunts occurred on a cold and snowy night, when Jim, Jackie, son Tim and I hiked into the forest in search of two trees. It was well after dark, as the snow fell at the rate of a couple inches per hour. Wading through thigh-deep drifts, we walked a familiar trail near home.

I don’t recall how far we actually hiked, but it seems we covered a fair distance. At one point, we crawled in under the lower branches of a towering Engelmann spruce and stopped for hot chocolate and fresh-baked cookies. In a broad circular space with a radius of at least 10 feet, we relished temporary shelter from the storm.

Only occasional flakes filtered through the boughs above, and the silence was almost deafening. With snow heavy in the “outside” air, the distant glow of the village allowed for enough light to see all but the eventual sawing of our chosen trees.

Once back on the path, our search didn’t take long. We soon wandered into a crowded grove of juvenile firs and as one held a flashlight, another manned the saw. All told, in under two hours — with trees in hand — we floundered back down the snowbound trail and turned for the warmth of home.

In the years since our nighttime trek, Jackie and I married and spent a stretch in the Arizona desert. For awhile, we lived fulltime in our RV and, by necessity, enjoyed an artificial Christmas tree — just two feet tall. With this being our sixth Christmas in Pagosa Springs, it is also our sixth year with the imitation Douglas fir. Given its consistency, beauty and relative ease of assembly, it really is the perfect tree.

chuck@pagosasun.com