Winter came hard to central Indiana during my fourth grade year. Sometimes that happens. Like the state itself the winter isn’t flashy, it’s solid. I always wanted autumn to fade gracefully into a winter wonderland. Instead it would come with cold November rain, wind and rain that would lash the dead leaves and lay bare a thicket of dark gray trunks and branches.
Even harder than the winter that year was my fourth grade teacher. It was a new school for me and things weren’t going well. I was widely criticized for a diorama I made and brought to class that included a lake with real water. There were unforeseen technical problems.
And then there was my desire to join the FBI, which led me to experiment with fingerprinting. I had a theory this could be accomplished by taking apart a ballpoint pen. I proved my point but there was collateral damage to a brand new beautifully illustrated library book about the plains Indians.
Just like the winter my punishment was harsh. No mercy, I was headed to the big house. I waited on Paddlers Row for 45 agonizing minutes before the Principal commuted my sentence to a few stern words and an admonition to behave myself. I eagerly accepted his terms.
Even with the dim self-awareness a ten year old, I knew I’d never make it to Memorial Day. I’d be staring down a paddling machine before the year was out. I needed to suck up to the teachers and some how claw my way up the rigid fourth grade social structure. Salvation came in the form of a Christmas tree.
The teacher broke the sad news to us on a gray November afternoon. This year the North Madison School couldn’t afford Christmas trees for all the rooms. No tree. No canceling math class to decorate the tree. No dazzling brightly lit tree to stare at blankly while the Mr. Khepart droned on about fractions and the worst common denominator.
There would be no tree unless “. . . one of your parents grows Christmas trees?” No one raised a hand. I saw my opening and took it. “We live next to a big woods” I said. “That’s where we get our tree and I’ll cut one for the class too.”
I sensed old Lead Bottom was skeptical but I was dead serious. I was going from zero to hero come Monday morning. On a cold Saturday afternoon I set off alone in search of the perfect Christmas tree.
Trees that are forever green hold a special place in the human heart. While the fields lie fallow and the land lies frozen, evergreens remind us spring will come again. The Egyptians, Romans, Druids, and Vikings festooned their temples and dwellings with the boughs of evergreens.
They filled their homes with evergreens plants to mark the winter solstice, the year’s shortest day. It represented the triumph of life over death. Plus, a few well-placed branches could keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
The story of the Christmas tree begins with the deliberate cutting of a venerated oak tree in 723 A.D. No doubt Saint Boniface has gone to the local planning council and obtained a permit to remove the sacred tree of Thor. Legend says he replaced it with an evergreen fir tree a Tannenbaum, a symbol of both the Holy Trinity and eternal life. I expect the real story is that the planning council required him to plant a new tree as a condition of approval for his permit.
Must have been a big oak tree because Saint Boniface is said to have built an entire chapel with the wood. Planting of the little tannenbaum marked the beginning of the Christianization of tribes in northern Germany. For the next 718 years not much happened. Coincidentally, not much happened with Christmas trees. About 1441 the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree in their brotherhood house. From Estonia the tradition has taken off to become what it is today.
It started long ago with an evergreen bough over the door. Next came a whole tree. Wasn’t long before people started hanging fruits and nuts on it. Some say candles were inspired by the twinkling stars Martin Luther saw as he walked through the forest on a cold winter night. Last year I got a little John Deere Tractor ornament for my tree. Somehow all these things are connected.
Unlike Saint Boniface, I didn’t have a permit or even permission when I set out in search of my salvation. The woods weren’t technically our property. It wasn’t legally our property either but I knew Mrs. Owen was old. She was probably pushing sixty and the odds of her being out there with a shotgun were low. If I could avoid the bull and any other grown ups I should be OK.
We lived in rural farm country where the glacier-flattened cornfields of northern Indiana meet the limestone hills of southern Indiana. Behind our house the land dropped off quickly into a low wet forest. Far away, on the other side of the woods where the land flattened into fields and pastures I knew I would find the perfect Christmas tree.
Once down the hill I crossed the creek with a run and a leap and took the short cut to Paradise Pier. Beside the sandbar I took Fallen Log Bridge across big creek. That’s where the easy travel stopped. I was leaving my territory and out of my comfort zone. I got a later start than I should have. Was it getting dark? Glancing at the sky I couldn’t tell how much light I had left. I pressed on; without that tree I had no future.
I emerged from the woods on the edge of an old pasture. Gray sky, light wind, only dead grass and trees as far as I could see in all directions. No sign of a gun toting Mrs. Owens wearing sensible shoes.
Coming over a rise I saw the cattails first and then the dark green shapes of Christmas trees! Beautiful, perfect Christmas trees. Not wanting to exaggerate my exploits I recently checked this area using Goggle Earth. I can report that Goggle Earth is wrong. I know it was more than 200 yards even though at that time my legs were shorter and my imagination bigger.
The crushed boughs of Eastern Red Cedar will fill any home with the smell of Christmas. It stays dark green for weeks and doesn’t dry out and drop litter. It also doesn’t have needles. It is a type of juniper. When I proudly brought my Christmas saving tree into the classroom the kids laughed at it. “That’s a bush! That’s not a Christmas tree!” The children explained with refreshing candor.
That was a strong dose of reality for a ten-year-old boy. If I’d had an Internet search engine at the time I could have pointed out that the Eastern Red Cedar is the 6th most popular Christmas tree in America. Plus it was free. Plus it beat the heck out of math class!
For Americans, the Christmas tree in the home is a tradition that goes back to about the start of the twentieth century. For most of my fourth grade classmates it was a tradition three generations old yet some very rigid opinions had been formed. Some liked firs, others liked pine trees. None us knew what a blue spruce was.
Home Christmas trees might be new but the human connection to evergreens goes back eons. In the darkest coldest days of winter they inspire hope. The world isn’t dead, it’s resting. Spring will come; life goes on.
Like most ten year olds I quickly rebounded from my humiliation. After the janitor unceremoniously tossed out my perfect Christmas tree, somebody donated a short fat pine. I went through tree counseling and over the years came to accept pine trees and fir trees and blue spruce as legitimate Christmas trees. I even embraced the silver tinsel artificial trees with the rotating light disk.
Maybe old sourpuss felt sorry for me because I made it through the year with little more than a few harsh words. Maybe any kind of Christmas tree can make you a better person. Having one in the house sure made me a better kid.