Friday night after Thanksgiving my parents helped me put up my Christmas tree.
I love my Christmas tree. I spend a lot of time with it every year – usually at night, just before bedtime, in a darkened room, where the tiny colored lights shine their message of the season’s peace and soothe my soul as I contemplate life’s questions large and small.
I prefer a fairly traditional tree, with the traditional fire engine red (not burgundy) and dark green colors (not lime or citrine or turquoise), tiny multi-colored lights, and garland. I trim it with garland and wooden cranberry beads, red bows and peppermint canes, and a hodgepodge of ornaments collected over the years – some with sentimental meaning, some gifts from family and friends, some just because I thought they were pretty. I call it my red tree, and it might not be everybody’s idea of a pretty tree – it’s not trendy, you know – but it suits me very well.
It’s not the same as having a live tree, of course. But several years ago I reluctantly bowed to expediency and purchased an artificial pre-lit tree. I had had one too many battles involving berber carpet, six-week-old dry pine needles and an old vacuum cleaner; and one too many battles with the city’s refusal to haul away my old tree, and having to rely on the man who mowed my yard in the spring to haul its dried carcass off at the first mowing. And even then, some years I would have to postpone getting rid of it because an enterprising bird would have built a nest and begun a family, and I would have to wait until the eggs had hatched and the baby birds had flown.
So, no more real trees for me until I have hardwood or tiled floors, and until I have a vehicle big enough to haul it away, or friends willing to do it for me.
But my tree is missing something else: Ivory Snow®.
The Christmas trees of my childhood
The scent of Christmas for me will always be the clean smell of fresh evergreen mixed with the scent of Ivory Snow® laundry detergent. When I was growing up, my mother carried on a tradition from her girlhood of mixing Ivory Snow – first in flakes, then, as technology “improved,” in concentrate – with water and a little salt to harden it, then taking a dishpan full of the sweet-smelling “snow” outside to “snow” the tree.
Snowing a tree was a grand excuse for my siblings and parents and me to get into “snowball” fights. Hey, it was soap, right? It could only make us cleaner.
We would let the Ivory Snow “snow” dry and harden overnight, then bring the tree in the next day to decorate it with lights, gold and silver garland, and ornaments.
We put peppermint canes on the tree until we got our miniature poodle, Penny, when I was 10. Penny liked to eat the peppermint canes off the tree. Within a day the bottom two feet of the tree would be bare of candy. Eventually my parents decided to stop putting peppermint canes on the tree for fear that Penny would pull the tree over one day while we were all at work and school. But she never forgot, and until the end of her days, whenever we brought a Christmas tree into the house, Penny would immediately begin sniffing its boughs for peppermint.
For many years, after Christmas I would pull a sprig off the tree along with one of the peppermint canes, and stash it in a box, sometimes writing a note of a Christmas memory from that year. Eventually I tired of hoarding small jewelry boxes of dried pine needles, but I always hated to say goodbye to a tree.
I still do the peppermint canes, but as far as I can tell, Ivory Snow® is no longer available in powder form, thus ensuring I will never be able to completely replicate the Christmas trees of my childhood.
Dick and Jeannette and Russ and the kindness of strangers
I’ll never forget my first Christmas tree as an adult living on my own. It was Christmas 1989 and I was living in an apartment complex off Lawndale Drive in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I lived for my first two years out of college. Across the way from me lived a middle-aged couple named Dick and Jeannette. She looked like Tammy Wynette, and he looked like a lumberjack, and in fact he owned a Christmas tree farm up in the Blue Ridges somewhere.
I didn’t know Dick and Jeannette except in passing, but one day we ran into each other outside our respective apartments, and they asked if I had my tree up.
“No, I’ve never had a tree,” I said. “I’ll be going to Mississippi for Christmas, and I don’t have a lot of extra money for one and I won’t be here for most of the holiday anyway.”
“You should get one,” they said, and I promised to think about it.
About a week later I came home from work and found standing in front of my door a little Scotch pine about three feet tall, in a red and green metal Christmas tree stand. In its top boughs perched an envelope with a Christmas card that said, “All it needs is a few lights, a little water and a lot of love. Merry Christmas! Love, Dick & Jeannette.”
I went to Walgreen’s and bought a box of peppermint canes, one strand of gold garland and one silver, two cards of tiny red bows to tie onto the tree, and two 50-light strands of lights, one white and one multi-colored. It might have been the most perfect tree ever. I wish somewhere I had a picture of it, but I don’t think I do.
When I lived in south Nashville I would go to a tree lot next to Harding Mall at the corner of Harding Place and Nolensville Road. My first year, as I was looking at trees, I found one then looked around for help, and approached a man in Carhartt coveralls.
“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked.
He looked at me and said, “You.”
We went to get my tree.
“Can you put it in my tree stand?” I asked.
He put it in the tree stand then wrapped it in netting.
“Can you tie it into my car trunk?”
And he did.
Then, finally: “Do you take a check?”
“Yep.” A long pause and a small upward tug at the corner of his lips. “You have an honest face.”
Every year thereafter, Russ would help me put the tree of my choice into the red and green tree stand that Dick and Jeannette had given me, wrap it in netting, then tie it into the trunk of my tiny car, first a Hyundai Excel, and later a Toyota Tercel.
I never really got to know Dick and Jeannette or Russ, but I think about them every Christmas with gratitude.
Going artificial: the blue tree, the peppermint tree, and the traditional red tree
Pre-lit trees were still pretty new to the decorating scene when I first decided to go the artificial tree route. My first artificial tree was a 7½ -foot blue spruce in K-Mart’s Martha Stewart line of products. (The K-Mart guy said some choice words trying to fit that box into the back seat of my Tercel.) It’s a beautiful tree and it looks wonderful when it’s put together but it’s almost as much trouble as a real tree. It is not pre-lit, and it has branches of differing lengths with color-coded tags on the end of each wire branch to indicate into which level holes of the “tree trunk” I should insert the branch.
Eventually I purchased my current tree, which is pre-lit and a thousand times easier to put up and take down than the Martha Stewart tree or a real tree, and although it’s not as full as I would like, it is still pretty. But for a few years I lived in a partially furnished house that allowed me room to put up both trees. The lady who owned the home had a blue formal living room, so I decided to decorate the Martha Stewart tree in blue, white and silver. It was lovely. I thought it might be anemic-looking, but instead, it gave an air of serenity, its blue and white colors reminiscent of moonlight on snow.
Then in 2014, after I had returned to Tennessee from law school and both my pre-lit and my Martha Stewart tree were in storage, I purchased a solid white Christmas tree for my little apartment and decorated it all in red, as my “peppermint tree.” In 2015, in a more permanent home and once again in possession of my belongings, I took the white tree to work, where it adorns one corner of my office.
One day when I live somewhere that allows room for two trees, I’ll have the blue tree again. I might even have a peppermint tree there, too. But in the meantime, I must limit myself to my old-fashioned red and green tree, which comes as close as I can currently get to looking like the real Christmas trees of my childhood.
And I’ll fix a mug of tea and sit before its lights in the quiet of the night and think my thoughts, dream my dreams, hope my hopes and pray my prayers. And its ornaments will remind me of loved ones and memories. And its evergreen boughs will remind me of everlasting life. And its lights will remind me of the Light of the World. And thus it fulfills its purpose, artificial though it may be, just as a real tree gives its life, to spend these few weeks every December honoring the One who gave His life for us, Whose birthday we celebrate this holy season.
And I’ll go to bed and sleep in peace.