Christmas Taradiddle 2017
“Most People Are Wimps These Days!”
Sometime between Thanksgiving and January 5, thousands and thousands of North American families will pack into their warm cars and drive a few miles to select their spruce, pine, or fir tree at the Boy Scouts or Lion’s Club rented parking lot. Hundreds of nearly perfect trees will be propped up on makeshift stands for easy selection. These recently cut trees release a pine odor that is unique to Christmas. Parents and grandparents will plop down $50-$150 for a tree that will hold its needles for three to four weeks. What a bunch of wimps! For us old timers, such a process is markedly anti-climatic and anti-traditional. For the others, the Christmas holiday ain’t what it ought or could be.
I lived in the early 1950’s when men were men, and boys were men. Christmas was notably dufferent back then because of the location, the availability, and the cost of trees. During my childhood, the first Saturday of December was marked on our 16 x 24 inch Burlington Bank and Trust calendar. The free gift from the bank provided adequate space for families to record all important events—whether the weaning of calves, the God’s Portion Sale of the local Church, or a host of birthdays and anniversaries. Few families failed to have a date calendar hanging somewhere in their kitchen. Mom always scribbled “Falling and Decoration of the Christmas Tree” in the area under the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. No other activities could “trump” this family tradition.
November was reserved in part to verbalizing our dreams of how we would find something even prettier than previous years.
We would go over as many creeks as necessary to look for the “perfect” tree. An artificial tree was not an option. My Dad, my sister, and I made the foray while Mom stayed home making a variety of cookies and keeping the chocolate and/or spiced tea hot for our undetermined return to the home fires.Temperatures in southeast Iowa usually hovered close to or below freezing during December, and snow often covered the ground. There was about a 35% chance of snow in early December according to historical weather records. My sweet dishwater blond sister was three years older than I. No one could call her a tomboy. In fact, I always thought of her as a bit prissy. So, while I would dress in five buckle overshoes, overalls, a thick-hooded wool coat, gloves, and a pilot cap. Carolyn would wear her loose top rubber boots, snow pants, fuzzy white coat, mittens, and a beret with earmuffs.
Our annual hunts had many similarities year after year. My mother scanned the countryside frequently throughout the year trying to spy an ideal tree. Unfortunately, we could only consider wild cedars since spruce, fir and pine were not native to Iowa. These “nicely-shaped” trees could only be spotted in the yards of other families. I would have snuck in during the night to steal such a tree, but my legalistic Mom vetoed that idea. Christmas tree farms were non-existent. The wild cedar trees belonged to the general populace–first come, first serve. Unlike in the deep south of United States, Iowa cedars were seldom perfectly shaped; instead, they were scraggly and never a deep green. Unless, considerable rain fell during the summer, some of the boughs were often more tan than green. Consequently, it took a lot of walking and patience to find an acceptable tree. Usually, we would have to go deep into the timber to find an area that had not been picked clean by other families on the prowl.
If we had not spotted a tree that was close to the road during the summer and fall, Dad would hook our B John Deere to a hay wagon—load a saw and a double bitted ax, his two energetic children on the wagon along with one or two dogs, and head out for an area of the farm that he deemed most hopeful. Every thing usually went really well as long as we rode toward the timber toward the back of the farm on the wagon.
The problems began when we had to leave the wagon. We walked when we reached a point on the farm where the tractor and wagon could not proceed because of creeks or fences. Carolyn’s boots were inadequate to keep the snow from falling inside and eventually causing her to cry about her feet getting cold. I suspect the “few” snowballs I threw at her caused some additional discomfort. Simultaneously, our hands would chill to near freezing. And both my sister and I would beg Dad to build a fire. That never happened.
My sister, though an above average athlete, never perfected the dynamics of climbing over a barbed-wire fence. She approached the effort as a combination of climbing Mt. Everest and escaping over a prison wall with three strings of barbed wire at the top.
I would step onto the second barbed wire with my right foot while holding on to a fence post, quickly step two wires higher with the left foot, then swing my long right leg over the top wire without touching, balance there, put my weight on the right leg, swing over the left leg and attempt to jump to a perfect landing on the other side of the fence. More often than not, I landed on my bottom in the snow.
Carolyn, on the other hand, had much shorter legs, less balance and limited agility. (At least that is the way I perceived it.) Plus, the fear factor doomed her to failure before she began. She grabbed the barbed wire to begin the ascent and immediately got her mittens tangled in a barb. The thorn-like barb would puncture her flesh. She would fall back to the ground and the fussing would begin, followed by “I can’t do this!”
Dad would tenderly urge, “You need to learn to do it sometime. Try again.” The next effort usually resulted in her reaching one wire higher up the obstacle when again she would stick herself with one or more barbs, and she would climb back down, pouting pathetically.
Finally, she would reach the top of the fence, get a straddle the fence and then her foot would slip off one or other side and she would lean precariously while screaming “HELP” wildly with the top wire firmly sinking its barbs into the insides of her legs. Dad would rescue his sweet little angel and I would get up out of the snow where I had been rolling in laughter.
But, sooner or later, we would find a candidate tree, and a decision had to be made by unanimous vote. I chose to endure a bit of discomfort (often two or three hours) in order to find a tree that was greener, balanced, and definitely tall enough to reach the ceiling of the living room. I can’t remember a single year that Dad didn’t have to fall the tree in the timber and then cut off a few feet at our house because we had insisted on a tree that was a couple of feet too high.
Sooner rather than later, Carolyn was voting yes to every tree we considered.
Dad would then saw down the tree and we would let Carolyn yell “timber” to help her forget her wounds. The return to the tractor and wagon resulted in a few more outcries of helplessness. And, then, when we reached the tractor, we would take turns warming our hands through our gloves on the muffler of the tractor. I remember so well the care that had to be taken to get our gloves warm enough to remove the chill but no so hot as to burn our hands.
Home always looked and felt so good. Mom had warm molasses cookies and piping hot chocolate ready for us before we would size and decorate the tree. And, since Carolyn had been given the task to yell, “Timber,” in her deepest voice; as the youngest child, I was allowed to finalize the tree by placing the angel.
From that moment, the attention shifted from the Christmas tree to guesses about what we would find under it on the Christmas morning.