This article was originally published in the 2001 Ely Winter Times.
Perhaps it was a hold over from the Depression, or maybe it was the power of tradition, but picking out a good Christmas tree was one of the things Dad always took care of for our family. One tough winter when an early November blizzard dumped two feet of snow out in the woods, I suggested that we go down to the lumber yard and buy our Christmas tree. Dad gave me a shocked look and told me that he didn’t believe in buying a Christmas tree, just like he didn’t approve of buying fish. As long as they were out there for the getting, then, by God, that is what we were going to do. We ended up putting on the snowshoes that year, and breaking trail through the deep snow to get to the stand of balsam that he had scouted out earlier that season. I can still hear him muttering to himself about not getting out early enough, and how old man winter had caught him with his stag pants down. “Mikey,” he said, “let this be a lesson to you. In the future we will always get the jump on winter, and never let this happen again.” The next spring we started looking for a Christmas tree as soon as the woods opened up.
Dad loved to drive old roads. He and Mother would pack a picnic lunch and head out to some remote trail. They would stop at a favorite spot for an extended lunch, then continue down some twisting old gravel road heading to anywhere. It didn’t really matter to them where they were going, as long as they were out in the woods. Those trips started to turn into travel adventures as Mother and Dad blazed new trails. Mother told me about driving over old wooden bridges that were so worn and narrow that she had to get out of the car and guide Dad to position the tires so that they wouldn’t break through. I asked her once what she would do if they broke down out there. She smiled and said that God watched out for people like her and Dad, and if they broke down someone was bound to find them sometime. I wasn’t much reassured, but limited my comment to requesting that they always leave a note telling us the basic direction they were heading.
While they were driving, Dad kept an eye out for anything interesting, like a potential Christmas tree. He would enter his observations in a little book. By the end of summer, there were usually several candidates on Dad’s Christmas tree list, and it was only a matter of picking the style to fit the mood of that particular season.
Many people considered only spruce or balsam for their Christmas tree, but Dad was not restricted by such conventions. One season, in a moment of inspiration, Dad said maybe it would be nice to have Norway pine for a change of pace. Mother thought it would be refreshing to have something other than a traditional spruce or balsam. I can still remember that small red pine standing resplendent in our living room, giving our family a new perspective on what constituted a good Christmas tree. From that time on, about the only thing Mother would ask of Dad was that whatever type of tree he brought home for her to decorate, it would still be green. One autumn day, sitting at the kitchen table, Dad asked me how I thought a tamarack tree would look in the tree stand. Mother turned from the stove and told him in no uncertain terms that something without needles was not an option.
“Look for a good three-quarter tree,” Dad would say. “You’re not going to get much more than that because everything in the world has a bad side, and Christmas trees are no exception.” Sometimes Dad would see a “fifty-fifty” tree. This meant that half of the tree was fine while the other side looked pretty sparse. “If we face the bad side to the wall this little spruce will make a grand site once Mother puts on the decorations,” Dad would say. One year, after we had finished decorating the tree, Mother echoed Dad’s philosophy, saying that people were a lot like Christmas trees because we all have a good and bad side, and that it was important to be sure it was your best side that faced the world.
Once Dad brought the tree home, it was up to Mother to decorate it. But over the years Dad had a few objections. One year while Dad was out, Mother flocked the tree with fake snow. When Dad came home he let Mother know that if she planned to smother one of his trees with Sears and Roebuck snow again, she should look for someone else to bring the tree home. Then there was the year that she sheeted a spruce in icicles. Dad said we might as well have a tamarack or birch next year. Mom never again flocked or sheeted one of Dad’s beautiful trees. The only other point of contention occurred with twinkle lights first came out. Dad come home from work and there was the Christmas tree blinking away in the living room. He walked over and turned off the blinker setting then stated that when they really twinkle he’d be glad to watch them twinkle, but blinking made him nervous. Bubbling lights were tolerable, but mostly our trees were on or off.
I don’t know how many Christmas trees Dad picked out over the years. It was something he started with his grandfather and ended with his grandchildren eight decades later. I was along with Dad and my kids a couple times. Dad had become so sophisticated about it that he wouldn’t let on that he knew of a beautiful tree down a certain old road. He’d let the kids lead the way while he followed them with the small camp saw he always kept sharp. Then the kids would round a corner and there, in a small open patch of forest, would be a Christmas tree that was too good to pass up. The kids would scream with delight that they had found the Christmas tree, and they would come running to Grandpa to show him where it was. When he arrived that “their” tree he would look down on them, smile, and tell them that they were just about the best tree finders ever.
It’s been six years since Dad took the kids to pick out a Christmas tree. I’m not as good at it as he was, but sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, I’ll go out and choose a nice looking tree which is perfect in its imperfection. I’ll come back home, put it up, face its bad side to the wall and its good side to the world, and think about my family. Then I’ll adorn it with many of the same old decorations that Mother collected over the years. I’ll wait for my daughter to come home and share the memories, as in so many other homes in Ely and the world, our tree of lights linking us with our past, present, and future.
Getting Your Northwoods Tree:
If you’d like to cut your own Christmas tree, the US Forest Service allows you to take one from Superior National Forest land. Permits cost only $5 and are available online. Choose a tree that’s at least 50 feet off the road.