illuminating the dark
cave of winter
Back in those days, the Christmas tree was always a freshly cut evergreen, never fake. After anchoring the tree in a metal stand, our father strung the electric lights. The bulbs, the size of his thumbs, came in alternating red, blue, green and yellow. My favorite lights were the bubble lights, which were introduced in America in 1946. Each light had a round fluted base, red or green, and a glass tube filled with colored liquid and pointed at the tip to look like a candle. A bulb heated the fluid in the base, which magically bubbled up through the tube. At the top of the tree, Daddy affixed the golden angel, which glowed from a little bulb inside. While the lights were going up, we kids strung popcorn and cranberries and made garlands from strips of colored paper glued into circles linked to form a chain. We carefully removed the delicate shiny tinsel from the box and draped the limp strands one by one on the branches. Next we added fragile glass balls or figurines. For awhile there was a fad of swaddling the tree in "angel hair" made of spun glass, probably not very safe.
Our grandparent's lived on a farm in Southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from our home in St. Louis. Grandpa always cut a cedar tree from their property and set it up in the little enclosed porch off the living room. The cedar needles were a kind of rusty green and prickly, but it was decorated with blown-glass ornaments from Germany in all kinds of shapes: fruit, animals, stars.
After I was old enough to have our own tree, we lived on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas, in an old stone house built in the 1840s. I wanted to have a really old-fashioned Christmas tree, cut and brought into the house the day before Christmas and decorated with real candles. The tree had to be really fresh so it would not burn up when we lit the candles. I made candle holders out of walnut shell halves glued to spring clothespins. The little candles were hand dipped beeswax that smelled like honey when they were lit on Christmas Eve.
When artificial trees began to appear, I could understand the benefit of not cutting down live trees, but I didn't like the fact that they were made of plastic, another drain on our natural resources. So when we moved to a farm in southeastern Iowa, I started buying a live tree every year from the local nursery, a small pine or spruce. While the ground was still soft, I dug a hole, set the potted tree in the hole and mulched heavily to keep the dirt from freezing and the roots from drying out. Just before Christmas we brought the tree inside for a few days. I continued the tradition of adding one new Christmas ornament every year, so those went on after the little blinking white lights, blown glass icicles and a star made from gold foil on top. After a few days, the tree went back out to be planted in its hole.
This year I bought the tree early, but we had flooding all spring so I had to wait for the ground to dry out before digging a hole. I left the tree in its pot in a shaded place on the north side of the house. Then we had a drought all summer and the ground was too hard to dig a hole. I watered the tree, of course, but the needles started turning brown and falling off. Eventually it died, along with a number of shrubs, fruit and nut trees and one Christmas tree that had been growing just fine for years. I felt sad about the loss and decided not to do that to a live tree again. So I bought a tiered metal stand, a tree-shaped candelabra. In the holders I placed white beeswax candles. Right before Christmas I cut a few evergreen boughs and placed them on the five tiers, along with fresh tangerines and red apples. Between the candles I hung ornaments from my collection. On Christmas Eve I lit the candles and reveled in the remembered aroma of honey and soft candlelight gently chasing away the darkness.