Tony Vagneur: To tree or not to tree? Is that a question?
Whadya know? It slipped right by without a whimper in my world. When you come from a family like mine, there’s no Christmas celebration with immediate, household family only. We’re a little spread out for that, and we all get it, even if we don’t like it. Besides, I was working on Christmas Day. On the Big Mountain.
But it does bring to mind the centerpiece of most people’s homes, the Christmas tree, bedecked in holiday cheer and ornaments, many with very special and personal meanings.
It started years ago for me, when I was 7 or 8, and Gramps started taking me up Collins Creek behind the ranch to gather in a tree for the celebration. His whole family would spend Christmas Day at the ranch with us; three daughters, one son, with their mates and numerous offspring, which amounted to a fair-sized crowd.
How we struggled over picking the right tree, not wanting to drag something home that wouldn’t look splendid in front of the living room window. “No, not that one. How about that one over there?” I was pretty much junior league when it came to form, and generally went along with whatever Gramps thought looked good.
We’d chop it down with an axe; Grandpa would lasso it around the bottom, and we’d pull it home behind our horses, Slim and Spades, on trails untraveled in the winter, about 3 miles away. We would’ve made a real old-fashioned, special-time-of-the-year painting, if any great artist had known of our activities.
It was an exclusive time for Gramps and me. We’d get the decorations and ornaments out of the attic, and Grandpa would sit in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe, while I placed the ornaments on the tree — with his subtle suggestions, of course. We had a favorite decoration, he and I, a country house that lit up from a tree light placed inside.
I always talked about the beautiful trees we rounded up for Christmas, sure in my mind that we were very good at our job. Until a couple of years ago, when I uncovered some photos taken at one of those family celebrations, the tree visible in the background. Oh my, what a scraggly looking beast it was.
Back in the early 70s, my buddy Hugh Slowinski and I were in charge of getting the Christmas tree for the annual Eagles Club celebration, back in the day when the club was located on Galena Street. With those really high ceilings. You remember Slowinski, colloquially known as Huck, or Huckleberry, chief bartender at the Paragon with a big, red moustache that came down well past his lower jaw. And a gift for gab. He gave it up to become a farrier; horseshoer in cowboy talk.
We always went to Kobey Park to find a tree tall enough for the Eagles, and by the time we wrestled it out of the deep snow in the woods and got it tied into the back of the pickup truck, we were usually soaked. The rewards were waiting on the other end, however, in the form of bottled beer and an array of hard stuff fastidiously displayed behind the bar. Edie long-time bartender and previous owner of Edie’s Cafe, made sure we were well-paid.
Christmas trees don’t figure much in my life anymore. Being a single guy, there really isn’t a purpose as I’m not the entertaining type. My family has wonderful Christmas parties, including well-decorated, awesome trees. Maybe Gramps and I will get another chance in another world.
For several years, I had a fake tree that I assembled each year, but that proved to be a waste of time, although I still have the tree in its original box. For the past few years, I’ve kept a small tree in the basement, about 2 feet high, decorated with electric lights and a few baubles, ready to go in an instant if I hear the surprising sounds of my grandkids coming down the walk. That’s called being prepared, but I go to their house instead.
Interesting is the story of my great-aunt Julia Stapleton, 80-some-years-old, inadvertently tipping her wheel-chair over into the Christmas tree at my parent’s house and knocking it into a total heap. Aunt Dula, as we called her, was suffering from severe dementia at the time and never showed much emotion, but as we untangled her from the tree, she was laughing as hard as I’d ever seen her laugh. She shot me a look that said, “How’d you like that?” For a brief few moments, she was totally in character.
What’s that you say? Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.