From the time I was small, I’ve been attracted to less-than-perfect Christmas trees. I feel sorry for them and I want them to have a home. Since I’ve been an adult, often with the responsibility for choosing the family Christmas tree, my penchant for little losers has worked in my favor. It has made the selection process fast and relatively stress-free.
Christmas trees in our family, whether fresh-cut in the mountains or purchased from a lot, have rarely been the perfectly-shaped reach-to the ceiling type. Fittingly, the decorations stashed away each year in January and hauled out again the next year are mostly an unglamorous, mismatched conglomeration of ornaments the kids have made or that we have somehow acquired over the years.
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I continue to drape the wizened chain of cranberries and popcorn that Kristin strung together 50 years ago tenderly over a couple of branches. The unsightly string dangles alongside a string of glass beads with the paint worn off that graced my parents’ tree when I was young, and the unbreakable plastic baubles the kids’ grandma sent for the low-hanging branches when they were very small. There’s never a color scheme for our tree. Anything goes.
Recently I learned about a western pioneer tradition that suits my Christmas tree philosophy perfectly. At the turn of the century, in some parts of the West, Christmas trees were a luxury that only one family in five could afford. This was particularly true on the High Plains and prairies where evergreens were virtually non-existent.
Families who were lucky enough to get hold of a tree decorated it lovingly with homemade ornaments, many made from paper. It sat proudly in the front parlor and was often left up until spring. (Parlors were usually unheated, so a tree last quite well.)
As the first prairie flowers poked their heads out of the newly-thawed earth, the tree was taken down but not thrown out or even recycled as firewood. Instead it was carefully stored away in a barn or attic in anticipation of the next Christmas season.
When the long-awaited holiday arrived once again, the tree was retrieved from its storage place. Now it looked very different. During the summer, the needles had dried up and fallen off, leaving forlorn-looking bare branches.
Not willing to go without a tree, families who could not afford or find a tree each year simply made the best of the situation. The tree was erected in its customary spot, but in place of the long-gone needles, these enterprising decorators laid long thin strips of cotton along the bare branches. When sprinkled with mica chips, easily found in rock outcroppings, the tree looked as if it were covered with sparkling, new-fallen snow.
The absence of the needles became a blessing in disguise. The bare branches made it possible to display ornaments in all their glory. They had nowhere to hide. Children and their parents began making very large ornaments which addressed the bare look and allowed crafty people to better display their handiwork.
If you don’t care much for artificial trees but don’t want to decimate the forest for your holiday décor, a snow tree may be the answer. Go ahead a get a tree this year, but don’t relegate it to the mulching pile in January. Instead, string it up in the garage, basement or attic, cover it to protect it from dust and start making some BIG ornaments.