The Christmas tree lot |

The Christmas tree lot

Willoughby collectionWinter transportation to the Midnight Mine in the 1940s.

After savoring the scent of pine and the scintillating sparkle of Christmas tree lights last night I was reminded of a family Christmas story, my father and the deeper meaning of Christmas traditions.

My father spent two decades extracting silver from its hiding places underground before I was born. That physically and emotionally demanding work cost him a finger due to an accident, half his lung capacity due to silicosis and, eventually, much of his physical stamina by the time most of his contemporaries were growing paunches due to their inactivity.

The struggle to keep a mine profitable, to keep the employees’ families fed, while most other Colorado mines were folding, weighed heavily on him as mine manager. The Midnight Mine was the largest and one of the few businesses in Aspen that produced a significant payroll during the difficult years from the 1920s to the ’50s.

At Christmas time, after a 10-hour day at the mine just below the top of Aspen Mountain, he would stop along the way home to cut a tree. He would haul it to Castle Creek with his bulldozer and sled, transfer it into a truck, and deliver it to anyone who wanted a Christmas tree. He was not motivated by religion. The closest he came to formal religion was when he, at my mother’s prodding, burrowed in the basement at St. Mary church to fix the plumbing. Like many of his actions, he apparently delivered Christmas trees without thinking much about it. Someone wanted a tree and he would provide it.

One year, when the few dollars he brought home could not be stretched far enough to make ends meet, my parents got the idea of having a Christmas tree lot. That was most likely my mother’s idea. My father operated with a miner’s optimism that a fortune was just one dynamite blast away; he was no entrepreneur. He cut the trees as he had in previous years, but this time he delivered them to their downtown lot.

People tend to complain when they have to pay for something that previously they got for free and my parents’ experiment proved no exception to that human condition. People who previously asked, “Freddie, could you get me a tree?” balked at paying for one and went without. I don’t know which was a greater disappointment to my father: his empty wallet, or the cold indifference he felt from others in his time of need. His faith in others certainly diminished, but that did not end his altruistic habits.

At the time, our family lived in the Cowenhoven building. Its high, inviting ceilings welcomed the tall trees that Father brought home for us to decorate. The tree lot was never mentioned when I was a child; the story was passed on to me later as an adult. Fortunately for me, Father modeled only the joy of giving and the enchantment of a decorated Colorado blue spruce.

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